Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Advent 4A: Christmas according to Paul

For a couple of years I taught Old and New Testament survey to college students at a small liberal arts college in the deep South. It was a great experience because I finally learned all those things that Brevard Childs and Luke Johnson had tried to teach me, but even more because I had some wonderful students. Every teacher has a list of his or her favorite wrong answers. On a New Testament final I asked my students to list three of the symbolic animals in the Book of Revelation. One student wrote, “The lion, the dragon, and the seal.” I asked her, “Seal? There are no seals in the Book of Revelation.” And she replied, “Of course there are. It talks about the seven seals, doesn’t it?’ Another question was “’BLANK and BLANK to you’ was Paul’s characteristic greeting.” Instead of “grace and peace,” one student wrote, “Hello and how are you?”

One of my favorite thought-provoking questions to my students was “Just what did Paul know about Jesus?” and watch their faces grow puzzled. St. Paul may have known a great deal about Jesus’ earthly life, but his letters give us very little information about him. Paul tells us that Jesus gathered with his friends for a ritual meal the night before his death; he gives us Jesus’ teaching on divorce (1 Cor 7); and of course, he knew that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. But other than that, Paul says very little about the historical Jesus. There is nothing about the miracles and the parables. All that Paul tells us about the birth of Jesus is that “…when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4.4) And he adds in the epistle for Advent 4A that Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh”.

It would seem that if we want to “hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind … go even unto Bethlehem”, then we need to look somewhere other than the letters of Paul. But Paul’s letters are the oldest documents in the New Testament. What would Paul tell us if we asked him to tell us the Christmas story?

One clue is in the first verses to Paul’s letter to the Romans. Notice that Paul collapses Jesus life into two events: Paul tells us that Jesus “was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection”. That’s a breathtaking example of the Bible’s way of compressing an extensive narrative into a few words. Paul moves from Jesus’ earthly lineage to his resurrection without pausing to tell us anything that happened in between.

For Paul, Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection were everything. To borrow a metaphor from science, Jesus’ death and resurrection were Paul’s Hubble telescope. For Paul, the perspective of the cross and the empty tomb brought everything else into sharp focus. For Paul all of human life was lived under the sign of the cross and in the light of the resurrection. Another way of saying this is that the New Testament was written backward; it was written from the perspective of the resurrection. Just ask yourself: what would we know about Jesus of Nazareth if it were not for the resurrection? To be sure, he was a remarkable man. He healed the sick, spoke eloquently of God’s love for us and our obligation to love others, and boldly denounced religious hypocrisy. But the same could be said of any number of great religious leaders. What set Jesus apart is that he rose from the dead. Christmas shines with the brightness of the resurrection. The “Gloria” that the angels sang to the shepherds echoed the Easter “alleluia”.

So this Christmas let us go again “in heart and mind …even unto Bethlehem” and “hear again the message of the angels”. But this year, let’s ask Paul to tell us the Christmas story which is also the Easter story, the story of One who moved from borrowed manger to borrowed tomb. And because his story did not end with a borrowed tomb, we, too, can sing the angel’s song of Christmas glory and Easter triumph.