12/27: Isaiah 61:10-62:3 • Psalm 148 • Galatians 4:4-7 • Luke 2:22-40
Among today's Christmas readings is a brief passage from Galatians. The passage itself talks about the baby Jesus as the person born to bring freedom to the world. To get it, though, you really have to read the whole book. Fortunately, this is a small project! Grab a cup of coffee and sit down with your Bible – one with some good annotations, preferably. Take in the whole book – six short chapters – and reflect with me on what the apostle Paul is saying here.
What first jumps out at me is Galatians 1:10a. Am I now seeking human approval, or God's approval? Or am I trying to please people? Paul, it seems, has had it with trying to please others. For him, the approval-seeking had come into his life courtesy of the Law of Moses. The pressure to conform, the ever-higher tension of trying to follow every rule, would have been part of the package.
Each of us has a certain amount of pressure to conform to whatever group we are a part. Some of this comes from others, but to be fair, some of it comes from within. The pandemic, for instance, is challenging each person to decide what to do for the holiday season. Who to see, and where, and for how long? The pressure is not just others wanting us to be a part of the group. It is each of us, from within, wanting to be a part of the group.
Family and friend groups and congregations are especially missed here at the holidays. Not only are we close to these people, but there is also, deep within us, an instinct that tells us we are safe with them. There are physiological changes occurring when we talk to each other. These responses occur in our physical body first, and then our feeling system starts messaging a positive sense that all is well. What the physical body is unable to do is to scan for Covid and signal Danger Will Robinson Danger!
Wanting to be a part of a group, when combined with the pressure from the group to join in, is potentially life-threatening at the height of the pandemic. More generally, it is always threatening to a person's capacity to become a self. If one can be oneself in it, though, the opposite happens. Instead of being crushed by these pressures, one begins to grow through them. One begins to define oneself. As example A, take Galatians 3:28. Here, Paul moves beyond the subject matter of the letter. Thinking way outside the box of his own faith and his own culture, he adds, There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
The day he wrote this letter, did Paul wake up knowing that he was going to say such a thing? Did he even know he thought such a thing? I doubt it. It is a tribute to his no longer being enslaved by the desire to please others that he could have such a thought.
This is Christmas for grown-ups. The gift, this year as always, is the same. Freedom to become oneself. Seeing life itself as an invitation to become oneself. The invitation is brought to each of us not by an easy life, but by the same pressures faced by the apostle Paul.
And now we get to today's short reading in Galatians 4. So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God (v. 7) Most of us have trouble seeing ourselves as slaves. And yet, whether it is the Law or one's mother-in-law, one can get caught up in trying to please others. Each time a person gives up self to join with the group, she becomes captive to the togetherness force. Each time a person manages to be clear about herself while staying connected with others, she gets a little freer. Christmas is the good news that for all of us in captivity, freedom is available.
Morning: How can I let family and friends know what is on my mind today?
Evening: When was I aware of a pressure or tension to conform or please others?
Isaiah 61:11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.