John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” - John 1:23
When the apostles went out bearing the good news, the Gospel, they did not go out with the Christmas message, but with the message of Easter. The Book of Acts reports that “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them” (4:33). Further, to replace Judas they chose “one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:21f.)
For the apostles, then, the Gospel story really began not with the birth of Jesus, which had happened some thirty years before Jesus came into their lives, but with the baptism. It found its full meaning only with the resurrection, and here we might note parenthetically that the original apostles do not seem to have gone out with the message that Christ had died for our sins. This is a theme introduced by Paul, who had not himself witnessed the resurrection.
The festival of Christmas became widely recognized only in the fourth century. Some fifty years earlier the emperor Aurelian had named December twenty fifth as “the birthday of the victorious sun,” the time when the days began to become perceptibly longer; and the church identified this with the birth of “the sun of righteousness.”
It is an apt and effective linkage, at least for us in the northern hemisphere. Just as Easter comes when the natural world is beginning to come back to life after winter’s hibernation, Christmas comes when things are darkest. We know, in a sense, that things are going to get worse before they get better, that most of our winter weather still lies ahead, but the lengthening days are a sure promise of an eventual spring, just when we need it most.
What we have done represents a kind of translation. The climate of the Near East was not like that of northern Europe, or Massachusetts, or Cleveland. Winter in the Holy Land was the rainy season. Crops were planted in the fall, at the time of “the former rains,” and harvested in the spring, after “the latter rains,” because the summer was too hot and dry for reliable agriculture. The Biblical equivalent of our winter was not so much a season as an area, namely the wilderness. It was not a time, but a place where nothing grew. Significantly, it was not part of the experience of Roman or European Christians.
The main difference between the two images is that time passes, while place does not. No matter what we do, the days will succeed each other and the warmer weather will come. To get through a wilderness, though, we have to move. If we try to wait it out, we will find ourselves outwaited—by a millennium or so.
This underscores the significance of a very familiar Biblical image, the image of “the way.” John the Baptist identified himself with the voice calling for the preparation of “a way” in the wilderness; and in order to appreciate what he was saying, it will help to review the story he was referring to.
Briefly, after the deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the laws and the building of the tabernacle at Sinai, the story takes us straight to the southern border of the Promised Land. From there, twelve spies are sent in who come back with a report that it is indeed a good and fruitful land. However, ten of the twelve insist that the inhabitants are too strong for the Israelites to dislodge. The Israelites disregard the minority voices who argue that the Lord will take care of that, and decide against undertaking the conquest. The Lord’s decree is that this faithless generation will have to die off before the promise can be fulfilled, and the people are then led on a “wandering” through the wilderness until a new generation is ready to move forward.
It may seem strange, but some in future generations would look back on this as a kind of golden era, an era when Israel simply followed wherever the Lord led. In reaction against the materialistic splendor of palace and temple, they proclaimed the virtues of the simple life. They seem to have forgotten, or to have overlooked, the fact that the purpose of this wandering was the death of the faithless, and that the story of the wandering is full of instances of discontent and rebellion. Forget all that, they might say—the Lord was leading them directly by means of the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, and whatever else you might say about the people, they did follow that leading.
Now take this image and listen to the prophecy that John the Baptist cited.
A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord! Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!” Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill make low, the rough ground shall be made level and the rugged places plain.
There are two striking things about this prophecy. The first is the emphasis on directness. This is not to be like the wandering way of the forty years in the wilderness. This is to be a straight path, with all obstacles removed. But even more remarkably, it is not presented as a path for Israel to follow. It is a way “for the Lord.”
The roles seem to have been reversed, at least in part. In Numbers and Deuteronomy, the Lord’s role is to determine the way, and Israel’s role is to follow. Now, it seems that Israel is commanded to prepare a way, with the implicit promise that divine strength will be available for the lowering of mountains and the elevation of valleys. Once this way is prepared, “the glory of the Lord will be revealed,” the sovereign Lord will come with power to tend his flock and gather his lambs.
All of this comes together beautifully in the fourteenth chapter of John, at the beginning of the Last Supper discourse.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust in me as well. In my father’s house there are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me so that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
“Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
The Lord is not asking us to take any path that he himself has not taken. His initial call to the disciples was a call to follow him. In the Swedenborgian church we take this with full seriousness, believing that, to put it in traditional doctrinal terms, the course of the Lord’s glorification provides us with the perfect model for our own regeneration. As the Divine in him struggled with and transformed the lower nature he had taken on through Mary, so the best in us, with his strength, is called to transform our own lower nature. There is vivid testimony in the Gospels to his experience of both states of blessedness and states of despair, of the motion from “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to “All power is given to me in heaven and on earth.” Surely we can identify with that on our own far lesser scale, as we find ourselves one day filled with assurance of the Lord’s presence and care, and another day sunk in loneliness.
Ideally, this is what the Christmas message adds to the Easter message. It is all very well to go forth bursting with the good news of the resurrection, but sooner or later we must face the fact that the resurrection did not come out of nowhere. It may have been the beginning of the Christian church, but it was not the beginning of the Incarnation. Christmas tells us that the Lord started out as we do, from the beginning, as an infant. It gives us very few details about his childhood and youth, but there seems to have been only one time when he did something that called attention to himself. The reaction of his townsfolk when he returned to them after the baptism, at the beginning of his ministry, was one of surprise. “Where did this man get these things? What is this wisdom that has been given to him, that he even does miracles? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2f.)
It does seem indeed as though “the way of the Lord” from birth to baptism was, at least outwardly, not all that extraordinary. It does seem as though that apparently ordinary way led to the most extraordinary outcome. At the baptism, we are told, the spirit descended on him like a dove, and from that time on his life was devoted to teaching and preaching and healing.
Each one of us at birth set out on a path of life. Each one of us was designed and created by the Lord for angelhood, each one of us has lived under the constant guidance of the Lord’s providence. The Lord has responded to each of our choices by opening a way from it toward himself. Much of the time it seems as though we are wandering spiritually, as though there is no straight path before us, but sometimes when we look back on our lives, we catch a glimpse of the way in which apparently random events form a pattern. If we could have an angel’s-eye view, we would see mountains and hills made low for us, valleys exalted, rough places smoothed. If we could have an angel’s-eye view, we would see how the ordinariness of our daily tasks holds promise of a most extraordinary transformation of spirit.
All this lies before the newborn child. There is no shortcut from birth to resurrection. The straightest way there is takes us straight through the middle of trial and temptation. We are inclined to look for detours around the hardest patches, and sometimes it may be realism rather than self-indulgence that prompts us to do so.
But there is one further thought necessary to round out the picture. True, Christmas adds an essential dimension to Easter, but the converse is true as well. The meaning of this birth was not evident to everyone at the time. It was not fully evident to anyone, in fact. Only when the life was completed was it possible to see who this person was. Without Easter, Christmas is just one more birthday.
At Christmas, we pray that the Lord may be born in us. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that this birth can happen as it did historically, without our knowing it. Perhaps there is in us some new stirring of affection or some little glimpse of a fresh and deeper vision. And perhaps, in years to come, we will look back on that first stirring, that first glimpse, see what has come of it, and realize that this was indeed the birth we were praying for.