Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The First Christmas

When I was working for the Department of Agriculture in the Philippines, one of the projects that I was involved in was the introduction of a new corn variety to the farmers of Alcala, Cagayan.  One of the identified causes of poverty in that farming area was the use of an old corn variety.  The old variety is poor yielding and susceptible to a lot of pest and diseases.  Farming families who relied on their harvest for their food and some cash that they need did had difficulty making ends meet.  The goal of our project was for them to adopt the new variety which had the following characteristics: high-yielding, pest-resistant and higher-nutritional value.  This way they would have higher yields and lower loses through pest and disease problems, thus increasing their income.  Well, on would think that it is very simple.  On the contrary, it was very challenging for us.  The farmers in that area liked the taste of their old corn variety and feared that the new one would not taste as good.  They did not realize that they are losing anything through pest infestation.  They believed that they are good just they way they are.  They did not see their own problem.  They did not want to change anything.  There is comfort in tradition.

So how is this related to the first Christmas?  The birth of Jesus Christ was an explosion of events that broke Jewish traditions.  So it started with two normal people, Joseph and Mary, who were engaged to be married.  Just like any couple planning a life together, they had hopes and dreams to have family of their own and raise children in accordance with tradition.  Jesus, however, was different from his very beginning.  From the very start of his human existence He was already showing the world that status quo can be improved by breaking out from tradition.  The world by tradition is worldly.  He came to show us that there is another way.

The verses from 18-24 of chapter one describes the encounter of the angel of God with Joseph.  I believe that those events exemplify what God wants us to do to adopt the new life that he came to introduce.

A call to Trust
Joseph's betrothed is pregnant.  Of all his thoughts, one would have been "Who is the vile man?"   "I love her but to raise this child is just beyond me."  And in the midst of this confusion...Jesus Christ was announced for the first time to Joseph.  "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."  This did not make things easier for him to understand.  He has heard readings from the scriptures about the coming of a messiah before...but it could not be now?  Let's assume that Joseph decided to trust and believe the angel about the Messiah.  Nonetheless, things are not settled in his guts.  Of all women, why his fiancée?  There are other women more mature who could be mother to the son of God.   This just makes things difficult for him.  Alright, Mary is the chosen girl, but why should it be happening now before the wedding?  So he shakes his head and accepts the fact that this is all God's timing that he could not question.   But that does not settle everything.  If the child is really the Son of God, why should it come to my future family?  How can I, a carpenter, raise God?  So many questions might have come to his

In the end, Joseph trusted the angel of the Lord who spoke to him.  He believed that Mary has conceived through the Holy Spirit and that was a virgin, still.  He trusted God that to go on with the wedding is the right thing to do, never mind that it is against tradition. He believed that Mary now carries the promised Messiah.

A Call to Give Up Pride
Joseph chose the best girl that he could have with the hope that he would be the only one in her life.  But even before the wedding, a terrible evidence of unfaithfulness comes out.  Mary is pregnant.  Based on tradition there is no obvious reason to stick with her, she is a disgrace to him and his father's household.  As one who is righteous, in this current age maybe he'd be considered Christian, he decided to be kind to Mary by ending their relationship without any fuss.  In the old Jewish tradition, the bride should be a virgin before marriage.  It would cost too much shame to marry her.  But the angel of the Lord told him to marry her anyway.

When Joseph believed what the angel of the Lord had spoken, he was willing to give up his pride in pursuit of what he was called to do.

A Call to Obey

The angel of the Lord made a revelation to Joseph that the Son of God is coming.  This revelation came not only with the information that he needed to know but it came with a call to obey.
  • Regarding traditions he was instructed, "Do not be afraid".  God knew that it was not easy for a tradition-abiding man like Joseph to brave the criticism and judgment that awaits him from deviating from what his forefathers had done and passed down to his generation.  He understood Joseph's emotions so told him to calm down and trust God instead.  Joseph ignored his fears and started to follow the rest of God's instructions to him.
  • Regarding Mary, "...take Mary home as your wife."  Joseph's intentions concerning Mary were pure and vice versa.  The marriage would be a fine one except for the fear that surged from his heart.  He thought that things are not right anymore.  Everything now seems against all sensibilities.  By the angel telling him to take her as his wife God is saying it is okay.  Everything may seem wrong in your eyes, but in God's eyes things are in order.  Joseph obeyed; he took Mary as his wife.
  • Regarding the baby in Mary's womb, "... give him the name Jesus."  The name Jesus means that "the Lord saves."  Names are very important in the Jewish tradition.  The idea that a baby's name should be meaningful is central.   The name honors their forefather or parents.  Sometimes the name indicates who the parents are, what the parents' emotional state was at the time of the birth or conception of the baby.  In the case of Jesus, the name expressed the plan of God and the purpose of the child in Mary's womb.  Joseph gave up his right to name the first born of his wife and obeyed God instead.  In so doing, he also was agreeing that the child is the Messiah, the savior of the world.
More than two thousand years later, here we are commemorating that event that happened in Bethlehem when the angel of the Lord spoke to Joseph.  Do we still remember the true meaning of the occasion or have we replaced it with something completely different?  I believe that that the message of our celebrations should still reflect the relational exercise between God, as represented by the angel of the Lord and mankind, as played by Joseph, during the first Christmas.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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