The Jewishness of Christmas

My father never liked Christmas. When our family would drive into the Italian and Irish neighborhoods of Brooklyn, to look at the Christmas lights, he refused to join us. He couldn’t understand how anyone could believe in a virgin birth. Moreover, he associated the celebration of Christmas with the anti-Semitism of his small village in Poland where he was born. He also linked Christmas with the Nazis, who not only persecuted him and murdered his family, but also zealously celebrated Christmas every December.

Although I could understand my Dad, I never shared his antipathy. Even growing up in an observant Jewish household, with a family that didn’t keep Christmas, I always enjoyed the season. I watched the tv specials, from Charlie Brown to Perry Como, and never missed the various versions of A Christmas Carol that aired all night long on Christmas Eve. I would go to Manhattan to see the department store displays, and drink hot chocolate while watching the skaters in Rockefeller Center under the twinkling lights of that huge Christmas tree.

But I lacked something. While I enjoyed the “feeling” of Christmas, I didn’t believe in its central features: the virgin birth, the incarnation, a baby born king of the Jews. I thought if only all this were true, then I could really join the celebration and not just watch it from a distance.

Then in 1972, I discovered that the star that shone over Bethlehem so long ago, was actually a Star of David and that it signaled the birth of the promised Jewish Messiah. When I put my faith in Yeshua (or Jesus), my heart sang out in harmony with the old Christmas carol, “born is the King of Israel.” But before too long, I realized there were not too many singing along with me. People too often fail to recognize how Jewish Christmas really is.

To begin, the Christmas story has all sorts of Jewish ceremonies. Luke’s gospel mentions the circumcision of Jesus (2:21), Mary’s days of purification according to the Law of Moses (2:22 based on Lev 12:6-8), and the redemption of the first born (2:23 based on Exod 13:2, 12).

Additionally, the Christmas story reveals events that took place in Jewish geographical locations. For example, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, in “the hill country of Judah,” (Luke 1:39) and the baby Messiah was born in fulfillment of prophecy (Micah 5:2) in Bethlehem of Judea, the hometown of King David (Luke 2:4). Afterwards, wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem, the ancient capital of Israel, for an audience with Herod (Matt 2:1).

Also, the Christmas story reveals that this child would be the fulfillment of all Jewish longing and hope.  The angel Gabriel told Mary, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32-33). Mary responded by worshiping the Lord who “has helped His servant Israel . . . just as He spoke to our Fathers, to Abraham and descendants forever” (Luke 1:54-55). Even old Zechariah, when he was finally able to speak, recognized that his own son John would announce the arrival of the long awaited Jewish Messiah, saying “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, just as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets in ancient times;  salvation from our enemies and from the clutches of those who hate us” (Luke 1:69-71).

Finally, the first ones to celebrate the birth of Messiah Jesus all had a Jewish connection. The Jewish shepherds were likely those who cared for the lambs and sheep to be used for Temple sacrifice in Jerusalem (Luke 2:8-15). Simeon, was an old Jewish man, looking for “the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25).  The aged widow and prophetess Anna, having seen the child, spoke “about Him to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). And the Gentile wise men from the East came seeking “He who has been born King of the Jews” (Matt 2:2).

There is no question that God intended the birth of the Messiah to be a great event for everyone, that it was intended to begin God’s work of redemption for all peoples in all the world. But let’s also remember Simeon’s reminder, that the Messiah Jesus was not only to be “A light of revelation to the gentiles” but also, “the glory of [God’s] people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

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