The custom of setting aside a time for communities of Christians worldwide to celebrate the first coming of Messiah Jesus can aid in spreading the glorious Gospel. It can also deepen our dedication as disciples. Isaac Watts said it well and memorably,
Joy to the world! The Lord has come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing.
The covenant roots of Christianity (which are uniquely Jewish, Rom 11:17) feed a healthy, biblical worldview, one in which our covenant forebearers marked sacred time with festivals dedicated to rejoicing in YHWH and remembering His saving work on earth. Some of these feasts, like Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles, were ordained by the Holy One himself. Israel felt at liberty to establish other festivals, like Purim and Hannukah, to honor him. Surely these precedents validate honest attempts to commemorate the inauguration of the New Covenant proclaimed by angels, "Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Messiah, the Lord." (Luke 2:11).
My purpose is not to discuss the history, traditions, or cultural practices related to the epiphany of Jesus (also known as Christmas or the Nativity). The season has passed. The goal of this article is to present an idea that can help you integrate the first coming of Jesus (Yeshua), as presented in the birth narratives, into every facet of daily living.
There is an ancient principle associated with biblical festivals, namely, the skill and art of remembering. The Hebrew verb zakar (remember) is an act of imagination that recalls the past in ways that lead to appropriate action in the present. To remember includes preparing for and engaging in a biblically inspired feast. It also means a continued walking in the realities the festival emphasizes—long after the season itself passes.
Zakar, as with all truly noble thoughts, begins with God Himself. The saving events of the Exodus open with, "And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob." (Exodus 2:24). YHWH emphasizes zakar in connection with the pilgrim festivals, "that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt." (Deut 16:3). Moses practices and teaches zakar as he prepares the next generation—and every Israelite after them—for the Promised Land, “it was not only our ancestors whom God redeemed from Egypt. For if God had not redeemed our ancestors, then we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” (Deut 6:21). The verb-noun nature of zakar even applies to ethics, how covenant people are to live, "You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today." (Deut 15:15).
Jesus grew up in a family that practiced zakar in the annual festivals (Luke 2:42). The heart of Joseph and Mary was that they would all grow in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. We can summarize these aspirations like this; a biblical festival, let's take Passover for instance, marks God's saving activity in time. It is a historical event commemorated annually by a biblical feast, intended to stir up and equip the faithful by way of reminder.
One could argue that my example applies more to the cross of Jesus than his birth. Yes, this approach confirms our need to rehearse the events of Messiah's last week (which interestingly took place during Passover). Specifically related to our topic, however, I would point out that the Jewish Haggadah begins the story of the exodus with the birth of Abraham and continues through Egypt towards Mt. Sinai. Therefore properly respecting Jesus' birth can and should lead us into every aspect of Immanuel.
Let's apply the concept of zakar to a biblically inspired festival by using the analogy of gift giving. Preparing a present requires imagination, thinking creatively about the recipient. To receive the present requires taking it and opening it. But there is more. The gift only achieves its intended goal when it is both received and put to use. Wouldn't it be odd if the present, once opened, remained on the shelf unused or slightly used? We could say it this way; the gift is a means to an end. The end being the blessing that comes to the receiver as they appreciate and appropriate the gift. What does the giver desire? Blessing. How does the receiver continually experience the intended blessing? Zakar.
The gift is Jesus. “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
The giver is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God."
The recipients are the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people." And again, "whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
During a lecture in Jerusalem, I heard Claire Pfann of The University of the Holy Land simply and memorably illustrate this gift of God in Messiah Jesus. She said to draw a circle in the air, starting with your hand at the top. The Son of God became the Son of Man (your hand has swept to the bottom having completed the first 180 degrees). Why? So that the children of men could become the children of God (your hand has finished the circle by returning to where you started).
All this reminds me of the godly saint who packed up all the Christmas decorations except for one. Visitors would invariably notice and ask why the ornament was still on display since the celebration had ended. "Oh!" she explained, "I need to be reminded that what began on that day is still growing in my life and the world."
That, dear friends (haverim), is zakar.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
Joy to the world!