Silent witness: Notre Dame Cathedral broods over a Paris Christmas Market
You can tell it is Christmas time. Fruit mince pies fill the supermarket shelves, Bing Crosby is in the air, and local councils fuss and bicker over nativity scenes.
In France the Council of State has decided that les crèches de Noël may only be set up in public spaces under the strict condition that they are not intended to proselytise; only, in other words, when it is clear that they have a primarily “cultural, artistic, or festive character.” In no way may a nativity scene communicate “the recognition of a particular system of worship or religious preference.”
The underlying assumption is this: that God’s Son came and was born in a stable in Bethlehem for church people. The birth of Jesus is an event for Christians, and must be restricted to Christians. This is a woeful misconception. Certainly the Bible does not describe the birth of Jesus as directed toward a particular religious nationality or sect.
In the Old Testament, Isaiah said this about the coming Messiah: “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). He then develops this theme:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:1-3).
“Nations” translates the Hebrew goyim, non-Jews beyond the bounds of Israel and her religion. Generally they were despised and hated by the Israelites, which is what made Isaiah’s prophecy so subversive in its original context. Although Isaiah’s listeners may well have sympathised with the French Council, Messiah was not coming for the religious community of Israel, but for all peoples and nations.
The idea of God blessing all nations was in fact foundational to the Old Testament. Israel was constituted by God’s promise to Abraham that in him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
And so Isaiah said, in words made so familiar by Handel’s Messiah, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end” (9:6-7). Messiah’s good and peaceful reign would have no limits. He would bless all peoples.
That is why Jesus’ birth was marked by a bright star seen far beyond Israel’s borders. And when Matthew tells us that “Wise men from the East” came to adore the newborn Messiah, he means us to know—quelle horreur!—that some of Jesus’ first worshippers were pagan leaders from faraway lands.
Luke too shows that Jesus’ birth was significant for all peoples. Simeon, holding the baby Jesus in his arms, sang in his Nunc dimittis,
“My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
“Gentiles” translates ἐθνων, ethnōn, a word that referred to the peoples and nations beyond Israel.
When Luke wrote his genealogy of Jesus, he began by saying that “He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph” and then traces him back through forty-one generations past Abraham to Adam, the father of all humanity. Jesus is a part of all humankind, and Jesus came to save all humankind.
Jesus therefore commanded, in his Great Commission, that his disciples go “into all the world.” The first Pentecost was marked by the miracle of glossolalia, the first Christians “declaring the wonders of God” in many different world languages, for the good news was for all nations. The Apostle Peter, after the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius, said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35).
The Bible never describes Jesus as the Saviour of a particular nation or sect of people. He came for all humankind, and the reason is this: God created all the world. God handmade all people, and breathed his breath of life into every man, woman, and child across our blue globe.
And the maker has seen the suffering, troubles, and loneliness of all humanity. He has felt the deep thirst of all people for true meaning and love. He sees the heavy invisible chains of humanity’s slavery to the cruel and tiny gods of égoïsme, self-fulfilment, and self-actualisation. He knows the dreadful day and hour of every person’s death.
God saw all this, and sent his Son to rescue all people. For, as Aquinas observed, “The human race was in need of salvation.”
The Bible itself is in no way the textbook of a religious enclave. As of September this year the whole Bible has been translated into 554 world languages, and almost three thousand language groups have at least a part of the Bible. The United Bible Society reports that in 2014 alone an astonishing 428.2 million parts of Scripture (including 34 million full Bibles) were distributed across the world, in a fairly even global diffusion. The Bible is not the possession of one culture or sect, but of all humankind.
And so the Christian church has a truly international character. There are, for example, an estimated 180 million Christians in Brazil, 80 million in China, 52 million in Ethiopia, 20-30 million in the Ukraine, 28 million in India, 86 million in the Philippines, 1.8 million in Syria, 9 million in Rwanda, and 8 million in Madagascar. Even in twenty-first century Europe there are many millions of Christians.
Jesus was not sent to save Christians, but all humankind. Isaac Watt’s famous carol is not “Joy to the church,” but “Joy to the World!” The Bible does not call Jesus the saviour of religious people, but “the Saviour of the world.”
The French State Council has classified the Christmas message as a message for one group, one sect, and one culture among many. “Keep the nativity within the walls of the churches, because other groups have their own scenes and messages.” This is a mistake, for the good Christmas message always was and always will be the property of all tribes, nations, and tongues, to respond as they will.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: thoughts and letters.