First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Christmas Day 3

William Loader

Christmas Day 3: 25 December  Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12)

The opening statement of this writing, which appears to be an address with greetings attached, follows the common pattern of beginning with a flourish. Like Luke's two volumes, Hebrews begins with a long and complicated sentence. It was the style to do so. The opening sentence, 1:1-4, is also packed with tradition. Paul opens his letter to the Romans in a similar way. He may have been doing so to establish common ground. Our author, whose identity remains unknown, has his focus already on the argument he is making.

You can see traces of  wisdom christology in the opening to John's gospel. It is also present here. The writer of Colossians knows similar tradition. Wisdom is the one through whom, for whom and in whom all things exist. Here the same is being said in different terms. 'For whom' becomes: 'whom he made the heir of all things'; 'through whom' becomes 'through whom he created the ages; 'in whom' becomes 'holding or ruling all things by the word of his power'. The wisdom imagery appears also in the description of the Son as the 'reflection' and 'stamp' of God's being and in the use of 'Son'. In 1:10-12 the author returns to the image of the work of creation and its end.

The image of wisdom not only created a link between Jewish speculation and Christian claims about Christ. It also evoked echoes of some Stoic thought, which, sometimes impersonally, sometimes personally, could speak of the 'logos' being in 'all things' or holding 'all things' together. The author is not engaged in speculation, but is making the claim that in Christ we see the very logic of the universe the way God made it. It comes very close to the claim that he is the meaning of life, life's wisdom, God's wisdom for life. So it is on the basis of this life that we make sense of the present - and the past in its various forms (1:1) - and the future. It is also in him that we see God: hence the language about being God's image for reflection.

Why might all that be significant for the hearers? Perhaps because some were unsettled by a resurgent Judaism which called the existence of this new Christian yet Jewish sounding sect into question. Perhaps because some were feeling vulnerable and exposed in the light of social and local political pressures on their members - including recent experiences of victimisation. So the author affirms that Jesus is not a sectarian oddity, but is about life and God and someone whom, and whose God, one can trust in adversity.

The author also uses statements about Jesus to say the same thing but which have a very different background. They come from the Jewish expectation of a royal messiah or anointed king. They draw on old traditions belonging to Israel's royal ideology. Ps 110:1 speaks of the enthronement of the king at God's right hand (probably in the old temple). Ps 2:7 speaks of God adopting the king as his vice-regent, Son, to rule on his behalf on earth. Ps 89:29 spoke of Israel's king as the highest of all kings on earth, ie. God's firstborn (or most senior) royal son. 2 Sam 7:14 records God's promise through the prophet Nathan to David that one of his sons would rule and that God would be a father to him and he, a son to God. Ps 45:6-7 even has the king addressed as God (because he represents God) as he sits, anointed, on an eternal throne. The royal messianic expectation was a major source for interpreting the meaning of Jesus' resurrection in early Christianity. What may at first have been an expectation that Jesus would come one day on earth to reign, quickly turned to a celebration of Easter as the enthronement of Jesus already now before God.

You can see that now in the 1:3b-9. After his death he is installed at God's right hand (1:3) and receives the throne name, 'Son' (1:4 and 5). He is in that sense 'brought into the world', born, as 'Firstborn Son' (1:6a). Angels hail him at his enthronement. He can also be addressed as 'God' (1:8), though God remains his God. The interpretation of Easter as his enthronement continues on in 1:13, where Ps 110:1 appears in full and then in 2:5-8, where Ps 8:6-8 is read as telling his story, from life to death, to crowning. Such royal ideology which linked kings to the divine is present in many ancient cultures and is reflected indirectly in emperor worship in Rome and in the divine rights of kings in Europe and even more broadly (for instance, in Japan).

At the beginning of Romans Paul uses a tradition which speaks of Jesus appointed Son of God at his resurrection. Acts 2:36 speaks of Jesus being made lord and Christ at his resurrection. Paul can use this tradition hard against a quite different tradition which could see Jesus as 'the son' from much earlier in his life. Similarly our author has woven together statements of quite different background, one rooted in wisdom speculation, one rooted in royal ideology to make his point. Both speak of Christ as 'Son', though quite differently.

Why emphasise all of this? The author is doubtless giving reassurance to troubled people. There may be more to it. The contrast with angels may reflect a world in which the latter were seen as in some sense a threat or barrier or a group which needed special appeasement before one could be safe. In a world full of fears it made sense to acclaim that Jesus is above all this and the God of Jesus is above all this and we need not fear. Colossians indicates that in its context some appeared to feel they needed to appease angels. It was a very elaborate (and for them relevant) way of doing theology: our ultimate trust is in God amid all adversity. Dealing with deep seated fears, whatever their mythology, is a way of liberating people.

Gospel: Christmas Day 1+2: 25 December Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20
Christmas Day 3: 25 December  John 1:1-14

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