You know, those talk show sets, particularly the ones that have "bookshelves" or "decorations" in the background? They're not real. Peter Rollins once asked why this is when he appeared on a set with a lot of fake books, and the answer was, "Because fake sets look more real."
What an intriguing concept. It seems to me that this says little about TV sets and a lot about our perception of reality. It seems clear to me that we largely see life through the very thick and distorted lenses of our own preconceived notions; that is, we see what we expect to see. If this weren't true, there would be no such thing as an "optical illusion." Our brain constructs algorithms and patterns and tries to fit every new thing we encounter into that developed system. Look at this picture. How many circles? How many triangles?
You see, our brains complete the picture. We think we see 3 circles and 2 triangles, but there are none of either. We do this subconsciously all the time. With every new thing that happens in our lives and world, we fill in the gaps with our previously formed narratives and frameworks. We do it so quickly that we don't see the gaps before they're filled in.
Many Christians think they know the Christmas story, but our songs and nativity scenes are not really true to the biblical narratives, as pointed out in a comical video called Retooning the Nativity. More significantly, many Christians have completely missed the implications and connections that the Christmas story can have with modern day issues, a fact that was recently and eloquently explored by Wendell Griffen. As he puts it, "Many Christian preachers and congregations are more concerned about Christmas festivities than the prophetic righteousness, justice, love and peace God presented the world in Jesus Christ." Mary's Magnificat in Luke 1 is instructive. The announcement of Jesus' coming did not produce warm fuzzies but was seen as a reversal of society's power structures (see especially verses 51-53). With many of our Christmas traditions, we've filled in the picture with some very different things.
In one sense, this is a fault, a human shortcoming. However, in the realm of spirituality, the human ability to "complete the picture" can also be wonderful and beautiful.
I have great memories of Christmas, and today I still love the holiday and time of year. I have great, euphoric flashbacks of driving around in our car as a family listening to Christmas music and looking at Christmas lights on houses, sitting down with hot drinks and watching A Christmas Carol, attending parties, and going to the candlelight Christmas Eve service at church. But these memories that are characterized by peace and joy largely reflect how I personally felt at the time, not how things really were. Every year, I look forward to the sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas and have a euphoric hope for the season with lots of lofty goals, but they are often suffocated by illness and busy-ness in my family. And of course, I'm now old enough to know how horrible Christmas is for some people. It can marked by loneliness or bad memories. There's at least one woman in my church who knows that this will be her last Christmas. And while some people open package after package of stuff they don't need, millions are hungry and homeless.
So, in a way, my "picture" of Christmas is incomplete and doesn't square with reality, but at the same time, it can also "complete the picture." It can serve as a model, a narrative, and a hope of what the world could be. To use my earlier analogy, I might be seeing circles and triangles that aren't there, but perhaps I'm also seeing circles and triangles that should be there.
The biblical prophecies we read at Christmas time are kind of like this. When the gospels tell the story of the birth of Jesus, especially the gospel of Matthew, they hearken back to certain passages in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and say that the events of Jesus' birth were "fulfilling" certain prophecies. Some of the most popular examples are Isaiah 7:14, 9:6-7; and Micah 5:2-4. It is said that certain Old Testament prophecies "predicted" Jesus, and when most Christians think of the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament, it's often the idea that "A predicts B." In other words, the Old Testament said something would happen, and in the New Testament, it happened. But remember, we see what we expect to see (or what we've been told to see). "A predicts B" is simply not how it works, and this becomes clear when we take the time to read these passages in context. Indeed, if prophecy is about A predicting B, then the gospel writers are guilty of taking verses completely out of context. Let's take Isaiah 7:14 as an example. Not only is the specific Hebrew word for "virgin" not used, but when read in context, this passage isn't talking about Jesus or a Messiah at all. This birth of a son was given as a sign to King Ahaz of Judah that the kingdoms of Israel and Damascus would not succeed in their campaign to overthrow Judah. No really, read it for yourself. Try this with any of the other prophecies and you'll see the same thing: a completely different original meaning or context. The New Testament uses Old Testament passages that never mention the word "messiah" (Hebrew mashia) to be a prediction of the messiah (for example, Isaiah 53) while passing over others that clearly and frequently use the term.
So what's going on here? Actually, something very profound is going on, it's just that the modern, western understanding of prophecy has put blinders on us and made it hard to see. The relationship of these verses in the Old and New Testaments is not a matter of A predicting B, but B fulfilling A.* In these fulfillment passages in the New Testament, the authors never use the Greek term for "predict," but instead use a word we translate as "fulfill" (plerao). It's a term that literally means to fill up, make full, or perfect. In other words, it's not that the Old Testament directly predicts something to happen later, but that the later event is a "filling up" or a "perfecting" of similar, former events in the past. It's not "A predicts B"; it's "B fulfills A," or, if you like, "B is more than A ever hoped to be." In the Isaiah 7:14 example, the "sign" of Mary giving birth to Jesus was a fulfillment...a perfecting...of this similar, former sign found in Isaiah 7.
Sometimes we see things that aren't there, but this very same affinity for "completing the picture" is what has enabled some to see the remarkable story that God is carrying out among his people. Yes, my past memories and future hopes for Christmas have been very incomplete, all about me, and tend to emphasize the positive. But yet, without this, where would my hope be? It's hope that inspires us to act (Romans 8:24). It's dreams that inspire us to get to work. It's the realization that God does the unexpected that causes us to trust (as with Mary in Luke 1). The punch line of the birth of Jesus as recorded in the gospels was not that it was expected, but that it wasn't. Oh, they hoped for a Messiah, but not one like that. They weren't completing the picture correctly. We usually don't.
We have to do both. We have to recognize where we're seeing circles and triangles that aren't there, but we also have to hold tight to our ability to dream up what the picture might look like. I can't help but think of a friend of mine. As she reflects on how she came to be the founder and director of a non-profit ministry to the homeless and impoverished communities, it all started with discussions in her small group about dreams. "What is your dream?" they would ask each other. Yet, she could have never dreamed what God was going to do at that point.
In what ways do you see things that aren't there? More importantly, what are your dreams for Christmas? For your community? For the world? What does your completed picture look like? Where do you think God is still drawing and painting, and how is He using you to do it?
*Credit to Professor Mark E. Biddle for the inspiration for these ideas.