This is an excerpt from former Center for Public Justice president James W. Skillen’s book A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice.
For most of us, Christmas is a long-anticipated vacation break from our main activity of work. The Christmas holiday gives families an early winter breathing space in the school schedule. For members of Congress and Parliament, Christmas and Hanukkah provide the excuse for a long recess.
From a biblical point of view, this is upside-down and backwards. Christmas in not first of all an American or international vacation day; it is the birthday celebration for the Messiah who is at work even now, driving all of history- all calendar days and seasons- towards their proper destiny. The center of life’s meaning is not our work or school or legislation, but rather the creating, judging, and saving Lord who sustains all our daily activities.
Israel had been called by God to live among the nations as a faithful testimony to God’s love and justice. The chosen people were to order all of their work and rest in ways that would serve as a beacon to people everywhere, as a clear pointer to the God who fulfills covenant promises. When the Israelites lost their grip on this truth, they sank into the mire of ordinary nationhood. And God was outraged.
So the Lord of heaven and earth told Isaiah to tell a dull and sinful Israel that judgment was on its way, a judgment required and promised by the covenant itself.
Israel had continued to celebrate festivals and holidays. Many of the people remembered the exodus from Egypt and offered sacrifices on holy days. Most had kept up some ceremonial practices. But by the time Isaiah arrived on the scene, all of these religious ceremonies and holidays had been domesticated. The children of Israel thought God belonged to them and could be pigeonholed into their busy schedules. They thought they had arrived and quit looking to see where God was still leading them.
Special days and monuments are set aside for a reason. They remind us of God’s past actions. The key to such memorials is to understand that they point to the God who continues to march out in front of us and to act in new ways. God cannot be confined in memory, in ceremony, in Christian holidays. Christmas loses its meaning if we think of it only as a reminder of something past and finished.
-—James W. Skillen is the former president of the Center for Public Justice.