1Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. 5For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you?”. Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”?. 6And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him”. (Hebrews 1:1-6 ESV)
In reading about Christmas I have been struck by the number of articles that want to tell the reader that the nativity sets aren’t true. Christmas didn’t happen like that! And that’s true when we consider the usual characters in a Nativity scene for they are a tableau that took up to 2 years in the making – depending when you think the Magi turn up. Today’s Second Reading removes nativity scenes all together! There is no mention of a manger, swaddling cloths, Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem – in fact in our terminology there’s no mention of Christmas at all.
Written probably in the 60s AD – again possibly a few years before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem 70AD, the writer to the Hebrews begins his letter about Jesus not like Matthew does with a genealogy and the story of Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy – nor as Luke does with his account of John the Baptist, Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Mary’s to Elizabeth, and then the account of Bethlehem, births, boisterous shepherds stirred on by the sign of God’s action – a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. Instead the writer to the Hebrews talks about origins and beginnings as they relate to Jesus but he doesn’t state the historical detail but rather the theological landscape. God has always been communicating with his people from ages past through his messengers – as a broad category they’re called ‘prophets’ – but now God has spoken to us through his Son. To know this Son is to know God because (a) all the world was created through him – which makes him God; (b) he is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature – which are words trying to explain – and doing a good job – the mystery that a human being is also divine; and (c) he – that is, the Son, keeps the world going – he not only creates but preserves the world through his powerful word, through himself.
The writer to the Hebrews is not writing to strangers who don’t know Jesus but to people who do and he’s giving them very clear Old Testament links – this Jesus you know is the Son of God, is God here personally in our world.
And now comes the elephant in the room – the reason for Christmas – the association we just don’t want to make in the same breath when we talk about babies and little ones. This is the part that the Christmas sales aren’t interested in, Christmas cards ignore, and people generally regard preachers in a poor light for mentioning it – but you know I’m going to! The writer to the Hebrews puts it in 5 words in English (4 in Greek) ‘after making purification for sins’. That’s the reason Jesus was born and that is the summary of his entire life on earth. He came to make purification for sins – not his own – yours and mine – and we’re going where we don’t want to when we’re in the same room as a baby – to the cross. That is why we’re here. Because this baby when a man rescued us, forgave us, saved us, and gives us life with him – by dying on a cross.
This little one is not a superman – nor is he an angel – even a superior angel – rather he is so far above them that the only place to describe him is being at the right hand of Majesty – again the writer points to the only conclusion that makes sense – this son is the Son of God.
Of course Christmas happened – Jesus was born – but it’s also true that the early church wanted to make sure people understood not the story as a pretty one to lose ourselves in and ignore the meaning but rather to know the theological landscape of this and all stories about Jesus. Christmas, however it is presented, is the story of the incarnation.
The incarnation is the mystery of God becoming human so that we might live with God and whether we are hearing about births, teachings, miracles, controversies, arrests, whips, crosses, even an empty tomb – that landscape that is presented is one we’re walking in. God has done all this so that you and I here and now might walk with God, live with him. Jesus gives us life and feeds us and guides us now – and Christmas is part of that journey each year – look at what lengths God has gone to rescue you. Look at the baby this day – remember the cross – and live in this love of God.
- Hebrews 1:1 - 6