For the past three weeks, I’ve wrestled with Christmas. I longed for that magical feeling, wondered if the day should be more about the birth of Christ or the new way of being God invites us to embrace, and highlighted how disjoined our world is from the one God invites us to partake.
So as we approach Christmas Day and celebrate Christ’s coming into the world, what do we do?
In Psalm 80 the director of music offers the people of Israel, a prayer, and I have to think it is one we too can embrace.
Imagery in the prayer speaks to the place Israel finds themselves as they pray. They point to God having uprooted a vineyard that God planted with vines taken from Egypt. The planting of a vineyard is a common Biblical reference to the journey from slavery in Egypt to the occupation of the Promised Land. Throughout the prophets, there are threats that God will allow foreign armies to conquer the land and haul the people off to exile if they do not remain faithful. So the people, recognizing their faithlessness and their rejection of God’s ways, cry out to God.
For a bit more history, given the early reference to the patriarch Joseph, and the tribes descending from his sons as well as the tribe of Manasseh, this Psalm most likely came from the northern Kingdom of Israel shortly before Assyria brought about their final destruction. That said, it offers words to speak in many times and places, including the history of Israel, Judah, and our own.
The Psalm opens with a petition to the Shepherd of Israel who sits between the cherubim. Each of these descriptors is filled with meaning.
While Christians might hear God described as a shepherd and immediately turn to Jesus, the image existed long before the incarnation at the first Christmas. Rather, throughout the Hebrew Bible God is portrayed as a shepherd and Israel as a flock. The verses reveal God as one who loves tenderly and looks over the people, guarding them against danger and seeking them out when they are lost.
The cherubim reference includes several possible meanings. This could include an acknowledgment of God’s power and ability to act as the one surrounded by the angelic cherubim on the heavenly throne (see Isaiah 6), but given the tone of the prayer, it is more likely a reference to the cherubim that sit on the Ark of the Covenant, a place known as the mercy seat that is featured in sacrifices on the Day of Atonement and becomes central to Paul’s understanding of Jesus work on the cross (Romans 3).
While the Day of Atonement is often thought of as a sacrifice made to please God, I believe this fundamentally misunderstands God’s nature and intention. As I wrote in my dissertation:
… atonement means at-one-ment and involves uniting those torn apart or reconciling a relationship. As we have already seen in Romans, sin is not a moral problem but a relational one that creates distance, not between God and humanity, but between humanity and God. Moreover, torn away from their creator, humans become disjoined from one another.
So how does the Day of Atonement invite the people to feel safe falling into the arms of a Good Shepherd who actively pursues them:
Based on an analysis of Leviticus 16 and other sacrifices, Nobuyoshi Kiuchi concludes that the Day of Atonement is a two-part sacrifice that addresses two essential aspects of the people’s sin: uncleanness and guilt. The first comes through the sprinkling of blood as an act of purification that cleanses the people. While the sprinkling of blood addresses Israel’s uncleanliness, the guilt remains. However, as Aaron sprinkles the blood and cleans the Tabernacle, he also absorbs the sin of the people and takes their guilt upon himself. Then, when he lays his hands on the head of the goat, he transfers all of the guilt of the people onto the goat so it can be sent out into the wilderness. The result is the people see their sin cleansed and watch their guilt run into the wild so they now have no reason to not approach the God who wants to dwell among them. Then that evening the whole burnt offering will rise to God and the aroma will please him because the children of Israel are no longer hiding.
This means the prayer opens with a recognition of who God is and that despite where the people find themselves, there is a perpetual invitation to return to the arms of their loving and gracious God. Everything that follows echoes the sentiment of these opening verses.
It invites us, as I wrote last week highlighting characteristics of Christ’s soft power, to recognize our belovedness and embrace God’s rule and reign.
As we reflect on the child in the manger, may he too remind us of who God is, draw us back into divine arms of love, and make us ache to see God’s will be done on earth.