Episode 72: Have yourself a lesser known Christmas story

Relaunching the podcast, Dan and Laurence celebrate by pondering a lesser known Christmas story. They encounter Simeon, Anna and a community of people in the temple at Jerusalem “waiting for the consolation of Israel”. As the baby is held high by Simeon, they realise how the birth of Jesus is firmly rooted in a backstory. Investigating mystery deaths and incomplete sentences, this is an invitation to have yourself a lesser known Christmas story!

Show Notes

With a welcome to hosts and listeners alike back to a relaunched podcast, Laurence and Dan begin by explaining their aim in diving into a lesser known Christmas Story. The typical nativity scene is of course derived from the descriptions in Matthew and Luke, but is that all it has to say about the birth of Jesus? There are events that happen in the gospel of Luke which are never normally portrayed on school stages up and down the country as part of their nativity productions. It’s these events that give us a glimpse into the backstory that leads up to the coming of the Christ.

A Jewish Christmas story

Laurence and Dan turn first of all to Luke 2:21-24 and note how these events place Jesus firmly into his Jewish context. Eight days after his birth, he is circumcised like every Jewish boy, which is the sign of the covenant of the descendants of Abraham.

Jesus is also brought to the temple after the days of Mary’s purification were completed. As described in Leviticus 12, the laws required Mary to bring a sacrifice after a period of uncleanness following childbirth. Luke 2:24 describes how they brought a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, which indicates that they were likely fairly poor, since this is the inexpensive alternative for this offering allowed in the law.

Laurence and Dan talk about how these Jewish practices place Jesus into a narrative that is rooted in the Old Testament. The laws in Leviticus reminded Israelites of their mortality and their need for salvation, as we covered in a previous episode. Jesus is born into this historical moment with these rituals and signs of the frailty of human life all around him.

The Old Testament in the Christmas story

Whilst the baby Jesus is at the temple, the family meet an old man called Simeon who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel”. Laurence and Dan are struck by Simeon’s quotations and allusions to several Old Testament passages in Isaiah. He sees Jesus as God’s “salvation” and a “light to the Gentiles”, echoing Isaiah 42:6, Isaiah 49:6, Isaiah 52:10 and Isaiah 60:3. Clearly, Simeon was expecting someone to come to bring these things to fulfillment, and in Jesus he saw the climax of centuries of anticipation.

Dan turns to Isaiah 40:1, where Isaiah’s influential servant prophecies begin, to see how this is all about the “comfort” or consolation of Israel, which is precisely what Simeon was waiting for. They discuss how Isaiah’s servant prophecies were seen as both the experiences of the nation but also about one individual who would be the salvation of both Israel and the nations.

The Tanakh anticipates Jesus

At this point, Laurence and Dan speculate about what other scriptures Simeon may have been thinking about whilst he was “waiting for the consolation of Israel”. In fact, they look at the whole Old Testament, known to the Jews as the Tanakh, named after the three sections of the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi’im) and the Writings (Ketuvim). Analysing the endings of Deuteronomy and Malachi, they see how the first two sections close with a mystery death and a promise of someone to come.

Furthermore, when they turn to the ending of the Writings, 2 Chronicles, Dan describes how this book closes halfway through a sentence. This is another huge indicator that the Old Testament, (or the Tanakh), is an unfinished story. It’s a collection of writings that together narrate a tale that is searching for an ending. And Simeon sees the ending is Jesus. The lesser known Christmas story is therefore the whole backstory that leads up to Jesus coming, which Simeon was waiting for.

More waiting for redemption

Simeon wasn’t the only one waiting to see the salvation of God. Laurence and Dan continue in Luke 2:36-38 and discover Anna, an old widow, who had been in the temple worshiping with fasting and prayer. She and many others were “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem”.

This community of people read the Tanakh as a narrative that pointed forward. Laurence and Dan briefly discuss other known groups in the first century Jewish communities, some of which used the Hebrew scriptures in a similar way (e.g. those by the Dead Sea in Qumran) and those who treated it differently (e.g. the Pharisees and even more so, the Sadducees). The New Testament validates the approach of Simeon and Anna, as it represents Jesus as the figure promised. The Christmas story, i.e. the nativity, is therefore part of a much larger narrative, and understanding that helps to unlock the whole purpose and meaning of the coming of Christ.

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