Ink plum blossom.5

22. Christmas, Freedom, and the Cross

 Adoration of the Shepherds by Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), 1581.

Christmas and freedom

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

and ransom captive Israel,

That longs in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel,

Shall come to thee, O Israel.”

This is the haunting refrain of a traditional hymn sung throughout the Advent season.

Advent is a season of waiting, of anticipation and expectation. But what are we waiting for? What do we anticipate and expect? Our desires are for God to come and set us free.

Christ is the Word who speaks freedom. At the commencement of his ministry, Jesus stood up in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth and made his Jubilee proclamation. This proclamation spoke of freedom in multiple terms – deliverance, being set free, giving new sight, releasing captives, proclaiming a year of liberty:

The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me,

for he has anointed me.

He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,

to proclaim liberty to captives

and to the blind new sight,

to set the downtrodden free,

to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.” (Luke 4:18-20)

Freedom, the central message in Advent, is the key to all human longings. At its depth, the freedom for which we all long is freedom from the bondage of sin and death. In daily existence, we may be anxious and sometimes troubled by political, economic, religious and even personal freedom, but at the end of the day, what we ultimately yearn for is salvation.

Christian understanding of salvation is freedom that comes through the Cross. Old Testament prophets looked forward to the Cross and the saints of the New Testament constantly looked back to it. From that perspective flows the important lesson that the freedom of which the Scriptures speak is not the freedom to do what we want, but the liberty to choose what we ought.

Christmas and the Cross

The meaning of true liberty is lived by Jesus throughout His earthly life. It began from the moment of His birth. We turn to Tintoretto’s artistic representation of nativity for insights.

Three items in Tintoretto’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” are useful for meditation on discipleship. Let’s first identify the items.

First, steps and stairways indicate the way we must take if we want to see Jesus. One ladder takes us to the floor where the animals are housed. A second ladder at the back of the barn takes us to the upper floor where the Infant Jesus is resting upon the straw, as Mary and Joseph are keeping watch over Him. A young maiden is on hand to invite shepherds and us into the scene and to point us to the right direction.

Second, the pitched roof, which is untiled, opens out to a golden sky from where angels are peering in. Separating the angels and the Infant Jesus are roof timbers which clearly form three crosses. The artist has carefully placed the three crosses over the nativity scene.

Third, at the back of the barn, a peacock stands on a banister. It’s presence may seem somewhat incongruous with the cow and the chicken, yet it stands at the height of the lower half of the painting, and it occupies centre stage in the whole painting.

To what do these items lead us to appreciate today?

The barn appears to represent the Galilee of our daily life, the mundane everyday routine and surrounding that characterize the earthly life of Jesus and ourselves. It is through our Galilee that we come to meet Jesus. But this ordinary life is only half the picture. To get the complete picture, we need to elevate to a higher perception. There, we begin to see that the Saviour of the world, who could find no room in the inn, will not only be lying in straw, but must face the reality of the cross. The artist’s theology is sound when he places the three crosses over the nativity scene. The One whom we eagerly long to welcome on Christmas is He who suffered and died on Calvary and who now calls us to daily pick up our own crosses in life and follow Him. With his artistic genius, Tintoretto further employs a symbol of the resurrection – the peacock – to place the nativity of Jesus squarely in the context of God’s plan of redemption – incarnation, cross and resurrection. Through the paint brush of this artist, we learn that as Christmas points to the Cross, it also leads to the resurrection . Together with the shepherds, we are invited to enter into a pattern of discipleship of which the Gospels speak – of new birth in baptism, through the Cross, and into resurrection and life. Christmas is that kind of promise – a resurrected life. Meanwhile, to embrace Christmas is to live a life of resurrection-practices – staying with the pain and sharing in the hope. “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.”

An “unlikely” link

The “cross” of Christmas reminds us of the “laminin” which remains controversial – unnecessarily so in our view – since it was first highlighted in 2008. It began with Pastor Louie Giglio preaching a sermon on it. Advised by a medical doctor, Giglio looked up the medical explanation on laminins and learned that these are what literally hold the human body together. “They are cell adhesion molecules. They are what hold one cell of our bodies to the next cell.” Without them, therefore, we would literally fall apart. The point in all this is that these adhesive molecules, according to medical literature, are shaped in the form of a cross! Take a look:

A diagrammatical representation of a laminin.

This is how the cell actually looks like under the microscope.

Controversy arose, it seems, when Giglio purported to prove the truth of Jesus’ cross in the laminin instead of in the Word of God. Bible-Christians appear to find Giglio’s approach objectionable when he first cites Colossians 1:15-17 and then suggests that he has found evidential proof in the laminins. They are understandably unhappy in view of the principle with which they operate, which is that the Bible does not require external proof.

Colossians 1:15-17 reads: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Coming from Louvain, Belgium, as we do, where we were privileged to have studied under an elderly theology professor  at the time – Hermen-Emiel Mertens – our operative principle is both pragmatic and liberal: If something helps you in your discipleship and your spiritual life, and brings you closer to Christ, by all means use it. If it does not, discard it and focus on something else which does. There are, after all, different ways of coming to faith.

May we wish you a blessed Christmas and a cheerful holiday season!

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, December 2010. All rights reserved.

You are most welcome to respond to this post. Email your comments to us at jeffangiegoh@gmail.com. You can also be dialogue partners in this Ephphatha Coffee-Corner Ministry by sending us questions for discussion.