Christmas

Mary, Did You Know? An Interview

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By Justin Wishart

Contemporary Christian Singer (CCS): Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?[1]

Mary: Well, I was a bit surprised by this one. However, when it happened, the words of Job came to me when he said, "He alone spreads out the heavens and walks upon the waves of the sea." This is, of course, talking about God and since Jesus is God, I was no longer surprised. But, it did give me some goosebumps when I heard of this event.

CCS: Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?

Mary: Yes, of course! Gabriel himself came to my husband and said, "he"—meaning Jesus— "he will save his people from their sins." Gabriel also came to shepherds and said, "today, one who saves from the punishment of sin," referring to Jesus. Simeon said, upon seeing Jesus, "my eyes have seen the one who will save men from the punishment of their sins." Anna soon gave thanks for my son as he will take our sins away and set us free. Isaiah spoke of my son saying, "After he," as in Jesus, "has suffered, he," as in the Father, "will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities." Really, I can go on, but this is one of the most sure things I knew about my son.

CCS: Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

Mary: This depends on what you mean by "new." If by this you mean saved, then I have already answered your question. If you mean that I would be made a "new creation," as Paul puts it, then I would have to say that I did not expect this. For my son to ontologically change me into a new creation as he did was something that I would come to understand when Jesus became an adult.

CCS: This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you?

Mary: This is a confused statement because you are equivocating the word "delivered." He certainly did not deliver me in the same sense that I delivered him. It seems, however, that you mean "deliver" in the sense that he would deliver me from my sins. If this is your meaning, I have already answered this.

CCS: Mary, did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?

Mary: Yes and no. Isaiah speaks of God's servant who will have extraordinary powers. He specifically says that "the eyes of the blind [will] be opened" and my son will "open eyes that are blind." I always thought that this meant giving wisdom or knowledge to people and this was used metaphorically. I still think this is probably true, but given all the other healing abilities mentioned, restoring sight should be expected.

CCS: Mary, did you know that your baby boy will calm the storm with His hand?

Mary: Again, I didn't know specifically this miracle would happen. But, since my son is God, that idea still gives me shivers, I am not surprised that Jesus did this. Doesn't the Psalmist say, "he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed?"

CCS: Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?

Mary: Why, yes! When Gabriel spoke to me he said, "the Holy Spirit will come on you. The power of the Most High will cover you. The holy Child you give birth to will be called the Son of God." This seemed to make it clear to me that this child somehow came to me directly from heaven. I could not imagine this meaning anything different.

CCS: When you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God?

Mary: This is a harder question to answer. For one thing, Jesus looked very human. Holding Him, though, you knew something was different and He certainly didn't act like any other kid I have seen. My knowledge of the Trinity was pretty small at that point, but I would often contemplate the words of Daniel: "I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed." I would also meditate on this while also thinking about what God told Satan: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall crush your head, and you shall bruise his heel." So, a human who is an offspring of a woman and was like a son of man, would have the same power and authority as God and will set up an eternal kingdom while crushing Satan. I must confess that I was confused by all this, but I did know without a doubt that I wasn't kissing a mere human. It wasn't until Jesus started teaching and speaking did I start coming to a fuller understanding that He was also God.

CCS: Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary: This is basically the same question as the last one. Some of these questions seem a bit repetitive.

CCS: Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?

Mary: Well, I already mentioned Daniel's words, but I suppose you want more. I knew Isaiah said, "See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted."

CCS: Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?

Mary: Yes. When I became pregnant, I read the words of Isaiah a lot. I have the book memorized. See, the servant Isaiah speaks often of the servant being perfect; there is "no violence" or there is "no deceit in his mouth," for example. Yet, just like the Passover lamb, the servant would be "pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed." Knowing this did not make watching Him die on the cross any easier. In fact, I felt it was really unfair. Yet, I suppose grace is unfair. Fairness would mean we all get the judgment we deserve, but grace allows us to not receive what we deserve. This is blatantly unfair. It's really a beautiful concept when one thinks about it, though. I am so glad that God is not fair. We would all be in trouble then.

CCS: The sleeping Child you're holding is the great "I am"?

Mary: Listen, man! I have already answered this twice. Three strikes and you're out, buddy. I am done with this interview.

[1] Questions taken from Michael English, "Mary, Did You Know?" by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene, Michael English, Curb Records, 1991, CD.

An Unsafe Christmas

By Jojo Ruba

I still remember their chants as they protested, "It's time for you to go!"

In 2009, I was invited to speak at McGill University in Montreal. The room was booked by the pro-life student club and the booking was approved by the university. Around 50 people were in the room, attracted by the controversy around my talk. I barely got two sentences out when about 20 students and supporters began to disrupt the presentation. They sang songs, yelled slogans and kept me from finishing my presentation. In their minds, my pro-life view that abortion takes a child's life and that abortion is akin to other past genocides, was so offensive that I had to be stopped from speaking. You can still watch the video of the event here.

If you've been following what's been happening on university campuses across North America, you'll know that it's gotten even worse. It's no longer just pro-life presentations that are being censored. Legitimate discussions on rape culture, politics, and even Halloween costumes are being shouted down and censored because these debates may "harm" students. Many campuses have created "safe spaces" that purport to provide a space where no potentially offensive ideas are ever spoken or heard. Many include children's toys like Lego or Play-Doh to help students alleviate stress. All of them define a "safe space" as a place where no "harm," either physical or emotional, is allowed. Harm is so broadly defined that it can mean simply disagreeing with someone's beliefs.[1] Today, this definition of safety is permeating into other parts of society.

At a gay conference I recently attended, several prominent businesses spoke about how they screen out applicants to their companies who may not agree with their views on homosexuality. Though it is illegal to do this, panelists talked about other ways they screen out people in their application process. This was to ensure they create a "safe" and "affirming" space where dissent isn't welcome. I hear stories like this all the time now.

Worse, this kind of thinking isn't confined to the secular community any longer. Even in Christian schools and churches that we speak at, "safety" has become a paramount value. Of course, wanting children to be physically safe, or preventing damaging and manipulative teaching from being promoted, is a good idea. But this version of safety means discouraging any speech offensive to students or members of the congregation. And "offensive" simply means ideas that may threaten the feelings of safety of some Christians.

I thought about this trend as I heard the first Christmas songs of the season playing at the mall last week. As I listened, I realized that all of those lyrics celebrating Jesus' birth often mask an important truth, namely, that the first Christmas wasn't safe.

Jesus wasn't sent as an armed warrior with a host of angels surrounding Him. Instead, He first grew as an insignificant human embryo, inside the womb of an unmarried young woman. She was likely still in her teens and could easily have been abandoned or worse by the man she was engaged to. Jesus could have been born an orphan. Even His birthplace wasn't a safe place. He was born into a race that was long ago conquered by its enemies and was now under their rule. Death was a common form of punishment in their society, a fate many other children in His town soon faced simply for being born in the wrong place. One has to wonder if Mary, as she cradled her Son, ever thought how she and Joseph could protect the child. Clearly the manger wasn't a safe space.

Rather than looking for a place to hide from any potential hurt, Jesus' birth reminds us that God's main concern wasn't our safety. The Christian message was never a call to remove any offending ideas or hurtful actions. Rather, His life, death, and resurrection show us that the gospel is not safe, but it is good. And He wants us to love people enough to say and do things that are risky and often painful, because that's what He did for us at Christmas.

[1] "A place where everyone can feel comfortable about expressing their identity without fear of discrimination or attack." MacMillan Dictonary, http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/american/safe-space, accessed December 1, 2016.

The Apologetics of Handel's Messiah

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By Scott McClare

Every Christmas, I make a point of listening to George Frideric Handel's great oratorio, Messiah. So do many people. If you live in a large enough city, you could potentially attend a performance several times each December. And because of Messiah's lengthy performance history (and Handel's habit of modifying the score to suit his performers), the variations are endless: modern or period instruments, professional or amateur soloists, mass choirs or small ensembles—to say nothing of the extensive catalogue of recordings! A more recent tradition is the "sing-along Messiah," in which the choir invites the audience to bring their own scores and sing with them. Paradoxically, this makes the oratorio one of Western art's highest achievements, as well as one of its most accessible.

Messiah is a Christmas institution. So it may come as a surprise to many that its first performance—a benefit in Dublin, Ireland, for the relief of prisoners' debt—took place in April, 1742. (The performance was a success, raising enough money to release 142 debtors from prison.) Its official debut in London took place the following March. Handel himself never had Messiah performed at Christmas; it was for the Easter season. Only the first of Messiah's three parts deals with the birth and ministry of Jesus, telling of the promise of judgment, redemption, and salvation through selected Old Testament passages as well as the birth narrative from the Gospel of Luke. Most of the best-known selections come from Part 1, likely because of its association with Christmas.

However, Part 2 tells of Christ's passion, his death and resurrection, his ascension into heaven, and his glorification. It continues by speaking of the beginning of the spread of the Gospel, and its rejection by the world. It culminates in the "Hallelujah" chorus, which declares the absolute sovereignty of God:

Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. (Revelation 16:9)

The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 11:15)[1]

The words are so closely associated with the "Hallelujah" chorus that you probably think of the music while you're reading them. We hear this chorus every Christmas, but it rightly belongs to Easter! The meaning of Messiah is not "for unto us a child is born"; it's that He is "King of kings and Lord of lords." Hallelujah!

Finally, Part 3 promises eternal life, the Day of Judgment, and the final destruction of sin and death. The oratorio concludes with the exaltation of the Messiah:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, andriches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.

Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.

Amen. (cf. Revelation 5:9,12-14)

Even less commonly known, perhaps, is that Messiah is as much an apologetic work as it is an artistic one. The libretto (text) was composed by Charles Jennens, Handel's friend and frequent collaborator. Jennens was a devout Christian who was concerned about the rise in popularity of Deism amongst England's intelligentsia. Deism is a philosophical theism that rejects divine revelation as a source of knowledge, concluding that human reason alone is sufficient to establish the existence of a deity. When God created the universe, He established natural laws for its running, but He does not involve himself in its activity. Jennens' brother had lost his faith and committed suicide after corresponding with a Deist. Grieving for his brother, Jennens composed the libretto to Messiah as a response to Deism, compiling Scripture after Scripture from the King James Version of the Bible (paraphrasing here and there) to show that Christ was the promised Messiah and that God took an active interest in the redemption of the world. Jennens was reportedly less than satisfied with Handel's score (which he composed in less than a month), complaining that some parts were "far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah." The judgment of history has, perhaps, been more favourable.

My favourite selection from Messiah takes its text from Isaiah 40:5:

And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed; and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

The last phrase is drawn out in long, solemn notes that underscore its significance. It is immediately followed by a bass solo that thunders out: "Thus saith the LORD of hosts" (Haggai 2:6). Jennens draws out the story of Jesus almost entirely from the Old Testament, primarily the prophet Isaiah, drawing from the Gospels only for the annunciation of Jesus' birth to the shepherds by the angles (Luke 2:8-14). The Creator is no mere spectator, and this birth is no mere accident of history. The mouth of the Lord has spoken it; therefore, it has come to pass.

There is a strong relationship between good art and a good message. I have met many Christians who can appreciate many kinds of mediocre art as long as they mention Jesus enough times and are helpful for sharing the Gospel. Yet, in Messiah, a devout Lutheran composer has created one of the acknowledged masterpieces of the Western musical canon, listened to by millions every Christmas. Thanks to his friend, a devout Anglican with a concern for the spiritual state of England, those millions flock into auditoriums and churches willingly to hear the Gospel sung to them.

I wrote last Christmas about why the Incarnation is important. Only God, taking on true humanity, could atone for the sins of, and intercede for, the human race. Without that first Christmas, when "God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law" (Galatians 4:4 ESV), there would be no Easter—no cross to free us from the penalty of the law. But Charles Jennens and George Handel were right to focus on the work of Christ on the cross, and the blessings that result from it. Without the hope of Easter, there would be no joy at Christmas.

[1]Like the text of Messiah, Scripture passages are taken from the King James Version (KJV) unless otherwise indicated.