Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus distinguished between the traditions of men and the commandments of God (Mark 7:6-8). Though critical of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus was not merely an iconoclast; he was much, much more. At the beginning of his ministry we learn that his preaching demanded repentance, a turning back to God (Mark 1:15). When it came to the traditions of men Jesus was incensed by their obscuring effect; his fight was not against the Jews’ practices and cultural artefacts, but how those drew the Jewish people away from God. Thus the people honoured God with their lips, but their words were unable to conceal wandering and desperate hearts (Isaiah 29:13). In honouring the traditions of men they ignored the commands of God.
On the eve of Christmas, Jesus’ words from two millennia ago are pertinent and precise in describing people today, besotted with traditions but indifferent to what is behind them. Jesus rebuked his religious listeners: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition, making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:9, 13). Now, the Christian reading this might don a proud demeanour for not losing sight of the true Christmas message, after all, we have “kept ‘Christ’ in Christmas, have we not?” No. I would suggest that many of us have not. Jesus’ correction is for us, today. With tomorrow marking the momentous historical event of God’s condescension, the beginning of the Son’s humiliation, and the birth of hope we must ask ourselves how the traditions of men have obscured our own celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth.
There was a punk band that I listened to as a teen called Noise Ratchet. One of their best but most poignant songs is entitled You’ll Be Forgetting Me, with this chorus, “happy birthday to me / the forgotten king.” Tomorrow is the day in the Christian calendar when we remember the Son’s self-giving work, which began with the incarnation. Yet tomorrow is most likely already consumed by brightly adorned trees sheltering piles of presents, large family gatherings, and gluttonously sized meals – the traditions of men. To quote from the aforementioned song, “open hands outstretched / to receive their prize / but I could give you anything, yes anything / you’re everything to me.” We desire so much at Christmas time, from the merry get-togethers to stockings crammed full of expensive gifts, yet easily forget to celebrate God’s wonderful open handed movement towards us, the greatest gift.
Noise Ratchet’s song closes with this stirring reminder, from the Forgotten King’s lips, “for you I’ll be / forgetting me,” and therein lies the hope Christmas embodies and the reason we celebrate. Jesus came for us, those who were far from God. He renounced his rights for those who failed to remember God; he practised incomparable self-forgetfulness to bring us back to God. Jesus’ prayer to the Father in Gethsemane must be remembered tomorrow, “Not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36). In a post from Easter I wrote this, “[Jesus] dies according to the Father’s will…to save those who are truly guilty and without hope.” When the King is led towards the cross in royally purple robes, wearing his crown of twisted thorns, sarcastically hailed by Roman soldiers (Mark 15:16-18), he forgets himself out of love for us. Remember that tomorrow. Draw near to him who first drew near to us.