MARY DID YOU KNOW?
One of my favorite Christmas carols asks this question again and again. One line captures the essence of Christian faith: “Mary did you know, when you kissed your baby boy, that you touched the face of God? “
The very center of Christian faith is that the one God of the universe became flesh in a Bethlehem stable 2000 years ago.
But can we really believe that?
At that time, the Greeks and Romans told stories about gods and goddesses appearing on earth. They believed that “incarnations” happened with some frequency. And Hindus still today believe that millions of gods and goddesses have become incarnate on this earth. So if that’s what we’re talking about, I respectfully reject this nonsense.
But Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Paul were all devout monotheistic Jews. At the very heart of Jewish faith was the strict belief that God is one. Any idea of a god or goddess appearing on earth was not just nonsense – – it was heretical. And that is why the question of Jesus is entirely different.
Almost all historians agree that a man named Jesus lived in the first century. Many of our best historians agree that in addition to being kind and loving, he made unusual claims. He claimed to be the Messiah. True, Jesus rejected the traditional idea of the Messiah as a militaristic conquer who would drive out the Romans. Rejecting that view, he called on his disciples to love even their enemies. But Jesus did claim to be the expected Messiah – – and then the Romans killed him. There is absolutely no evidence that any Jews at this time continued to believe in someone who had claimed to be the Messiah after that person got killed by the Romans. The Messiah was supposed to conquer, not get killed. Jesus was finished.
But then, as N. T. Wright shows (in The Resurrection of the Son of God), the historical evidence is strong that Jesus was alive again on the third day. It is clear everywhere in the New Testament that the resurrection was at the very heart of the early Christians’ faith – – and their claims about Jesus.
What is most amazing is that the early Christians – – Jewish monotheists all!--started to worship the Carpenter from Nazareth. Saul of Tarsus trained under one of the best monotheistic Jewish teachers of his day. Saul was a strict monotheist – – that may very well be why for a time he persecuted Christians, believing that what they were saying about the Carpenter was heretical. But then he met the risen Jesus.
One of the most important titles that the early Christians regularly applied to Jesus was the Greek word kurios (Lord). When the Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek in the third century BC, they used the Greek word kurios to translate the Hebrew word Yahweh – – the Hebrew word for the one God. Paul, the highly trained Jewish scholar, knew that very well. But he chose constantly to apply the word kurios to Jesus. It appears in the greetings of virtually every one of Paul’s letters. (See Gordon Fee’s excellent book Pauline Christology.)
Philippians 2:9 -11 is especially clear. Paul takes words from the mouth of Yahweh in Isaiah 45:23 and applies them to Jesus. In Isaiah, Jahweh, the one God, mocks the idols with their false claims to deity and says: “Before me, every knee will bow, by me every tongue will swear.“ Paul quotes precisely this passage and applies it to Jesus: “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow… and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord (kurios)“ (Philippians 2:9-11).
And N.T. Wright, one of the very best New Testament scholars today, says this about what Paul is doing: “Paul knows perfectly well, in quoting Isaiah 45:23… just how enormous a claim he is making. In that passage [in Isaiah,] one of the most fiercely monotheistic statements in the Old Testament, Yahweh declares that he is God, and there is no other; to YHWH and him alone every knee will bow and every tongue swear … Paul must have known exactly what he was doing.“ (The New Testament in its World (pp.372-373.)
The carpenter from Nazareth is Yahweh. The baby in Mary’s arms is true God as well as true man. That is the incredible claim we make when we sing Christmas carols. That is the very center of Christian faith.
The beginning of the gospel of John puts it clearly: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us“(John 1:1, 14).
The young virgin who gave birth to the Son of God in a stable certainly did not know all of that. But as the early church reflected on what had happened among them, strict Jewish monotheists realized that the only way to understand what had happened in their midst was to call the Carpenter from Nazareth Jahweh. At Christmas and always, we confess with amazement and awe that Mary’s baby is true God.
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