Merry Christmas, everyone. I’ve been thinking about storylines lately. The writers of the Gospels were determined to cast Jesus into a particular story structure, one that meant a lot to them but which today, in all likelihood, doesn’t resonate nearly as much. That’s the story of the Messiah, a rather enigmatic character who shows up now and again in the Hebrew Bible. The idea of the Messiah (Greek translation: Christos) for first-century Jews is that he was a future king, who would be sent by God to set things right and restore the lost Jewish kingdom. For a nation that had endured oppression, periodic religious persecution, and mass relocation, the Messiah was a significant figure. The arrival of the Messiah would be a sign that despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the Jews had not been abandoned by their God.
So the Gospel writers went to great lengths to make the case that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. They retrofitted an elaborate genealogy to claim that he was a descendant of King David. They borrowed tidbits from other religious traditions to heighten the mythological significance of Jesus’ birth story: a big star that suddenly appears. Celestial beings – angels – showing up and making announcements. Religious leaders from far away who come to pay homage. In other words, it was very important to them to show that Christmas – the birth of Jesus – was the fulfillment of an ancient promise.
Nowadays, we don’t think much about the concept of a Messiah. Apart from Christmas, the most frequent use of the word is in the phrase “Messiah complex,” describing somebody who is under the delusion that they are specially called to solve everyone’s problems and who think they have all the answers. Frankly, we don’t need any more Messiahs these days. We have plenty.
But we do need something at this moment of the calendar. Many people feel deep sadness at this time of year. I think of one of the great nineteenth-century Christmas songs, with words from the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It starts out with the sweet sound of the bells, but by the third verse of the song (sixth verse of the poem) the speaker has reached the realization that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on Earth, goodwill to men.” Only at the very end does the speaker achieve a measure of hope that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” The message of the poem is essentially this: Things are a mess but they will get better. The poem’s origin in the heart of the Civil War, made clear in the verses that are omitted from the Christmas song, helps to explain why its message of comfort is so muted.
Many of the modern Christmas classics have that same theme. Things are a mess but they will get better. The older songs celebrate the triumphant arrival of the King of Kings, Lord of Lords. But nowadays we have a more modest aim. As the Merle Haggard song puts it, “If we make it through December, everything’s gonna be all right.” Think of the beautiful but melancholy 1943 song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: “Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Believe it or not, this version of the song was actually lightened up from the original version the songwriter presented to Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland for Meet Me in St. Louis. They found it too depressing, with lines like “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past.” How’s that for some good tidings?
At this time of year, we bring lights into our houses and out on our lawns. There was a news story on television recently about a homeowner in my town who had lit her house so brilliantly that it was showing up in satellite images. We search for gifts for our loved ones, just the right thing that will show them how much we love them. We find the people and organizations that are doing good, and we help them out. The Food Bank, the homeless shelter, the refugee center. All of this comes from a place of longing and of hope. In the absence of a messiah sent by God and foretold by prophets, we step in. We are not here to restore the Kingdom of Israel. We are not here to fulfill a promise. We are here to make a promise. And that promise is: I will look out for you. I will care for you. We will bind ourselves together in large ways and small ways. Things are a mess right now, but I will work to make them better. The promise is not from a distant and historic God to us, but from ourselves to ourselves, and we make it now and looking into the future.