Jesus’ birth, seen through his father Joseph’s experience in the Gospel of Matthew, focuses on the activity of the Spirit of God in the drama of the child born to a poor Palestinian couple during the bleak years of Roman occupation. An angel tells Joseph that God is at work through Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. Such activity of the Spirit of God is expressed through the name Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” El is the ancient Hebrew word for God and immanu means “with us” (Matt. 1:18-24). As a seasoned gardener, I envision the Spirit moving in a way similar to the barely observable stirring of life underground in my garden in the dead of winter.
The angel told Joseph to name the baby Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.” This opens up a huge theological discussion. How do we understand sin? What does it mean to be saved from our sins? How is Jesus our savior?
As in Mary’s song, the hope of ordinary first-century Jews was that God would bring salvation through “taking down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly” (Luke 1:46-55). Many dreamed of a coming messiah who would fight to drive the hated Roman occupiers from their land and then rule as a righteous and faithful king. But Jesus didn’t neatly fit into this box. The Gospels reveal Jesus as a universal messiah who brings salvation to all people.
In later church history, male theologians identified “sin” with the problem of pride. Salvation involved being released from our ambitions to make room for God and become other-centered. Recent feminist theologians have come to recognize that “sin” for women (and most of us for that matter) is actually the opposite. We have an underdeveloped sense of self and are overly dependent on others. Diana Butler says that we have “lost any real sense of self in a world of broken memories, entertainment technologies, and frenzied materialism” (Christianity after Religion, 181).
Furthermore, “sin” is commonly associated with vices like illicit sex, drinking and smoking. Jesus is considered to be our savior who died to save us from such sins. Much of the focus has been on sexual ethics—contraception, abortion, and homosexuality—which has made Christianity appear reactionary, puritanical, and out-of-touch. Again, it’s a tight box that cannot contain Jesus. The recently elected Pope Francis says we need to change the conversation to other things like serving those in need, economic justice, and compassion.
The Pope is demonstrating this change by insisting on carrying his own bags and by not moving into the elaborate papal palace at the Vatican. When asked about his attitude toward gays he responded, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” People responded with immediate enthusiasm and delight. Time Magazine named him person of the year. Well not everyone’s delighted. Rush Limbaugh worries that Francis may be a closet communist. Yet, from another perspective, there’s nothing remarkable about the Pope’s words and example. As one pundit said, “It sounds an awful lot like this guy named Jesus.” All this indicates how far organized Christianity has strayed from the life and vision of Jesus.
God’s Spirit is inviting us to step outside of these boxes and experience the joy and the promise of the baby born in Bethlehem. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Salvation is not being saved from ourselves, escaping some dreadful fate of judgment, damnation, and hellfire at the hands of a wrathful God; rather it is being saved to ourselves, finding what was lost and the joy of discovery in the hands of a loving Creator” (Christianity after Religion, 182).
This is the liberating good news we celebrate at Christmas.