Christmas and Luke’s Theology of Hope
It is for us, as for the people of the third Gospel, to look beyond the stable toward the Kingdom of God
by Vernard Eller

This article was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on December 14, 1966. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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I was head over heels in the theology of hope (That theology The Christian Century editors have described as "bidding fair to displace the so-called secular theology of the past few years")--indeed, I was in the very process of reading Jürgen Moltmann&rlquo;s The Theology of Hope--when an invitation to give a Christmas sermon arrived.

As I set about preparing my sermon my first, and obvious, thought was to try approaching the Christmas story from the viewpoint of this new theology. (Moltmann makes a great deal of the resurrection but does not so much as mention the nativity.) My intent, frankly, was to bring to the Scripture a ready-made theological perspective and then force the text to speak through it.

I rather guessed that Luke would be the better bet, but I decided to use Matthew for a first try. It was a disappointment; that Gospel simply does not provide the wherewithal. So I turned to Luke--and lo and behold, nobody has to teach the theology of hope to Luke: he was preaching it long before our modern theologians got around to inventing it? The expected relationship was reversed: Luke's Christmas story gave me much more theology of hope than I ever could have brought to it. I had an exciting time.

I. Luke’s Eschatological Promise

To appreciate this experience it is necessary to understand some of the "hope" lingo. The key concept is "promise"; namely, God's promise as to what he intends to do for and with human history. And if we are to deal either with Luke's or the theology of hope's use of "promise" we need to distinguish between "the ultimate promise and "penultimate promises." The ultimate promise (better, the promise of the ultimate) is eschatological in the strict sense of that term; it is the promise of that which is final (in that there is nothing greater that could be promised) and universal (extending to all men and even to the rest of creation). It is the promise of the Kingdom of God, of making man, true and all things new, of God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven. It is plain that for Luke the Abrahamic promise is also a version of this ultimate promise because, although it speaks specifically of the fulfillment of Israel, it concludes thus: "and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves."

On the other hand penultimate promises, both in their being promised and in their being fulfilled, operate as reaffirmations of the ultimate promise; as guarantees of the ultimate promise, as progress toward the fulfillment of the ultimate promise, and as insights into and disclosures of the character of the ultimate promise.

Another key concept is "joy," or "rejoicing." Commonly throughout the New Testament (and without exception in Luke's Christmas story) joy is not so much a response to a happening that is significant in and of itself as it is an anticipatory reaction to a promise that shows signs of moving toward fulfillment. Joy is an eschatological reaching out occasioned by anything that brings the ultimate promise into ken. Similarly, Luke consistently uses "evangel" (gospel, good news) not as the proclamation of something that has taken place but as promise of something about to take place; the tense of the good news is future.

"Peace," too, customarily in the Bible and without exception in Luke's nativity narrative, is an eschatological term. It is the Greek version of the Hebrew shalom, the quality of being right in one's relations to oneself, one's fellows and the world. Indeed, the content of the ultimate promise can be described as nothing more or less than final, universal shalom.

Finally, the concept "redemption/salvation" as used here by Luke (and largely throughout the Bible) is not, as we often have understood it, a personal event experienced singly and independently by various individuals. Redemption is the eschatological goal toward which God is moving the entire creation. What we call "personal salvation" is simply the individual's promissory appropriation and foretaste of the ultimate promise.

II. The Christmas Story

Now we are ready to look at Luke‘s Christmas story. It opens with an annunciation by an angel--the first of three or possibly four such scenes. Angels fly thick here--and for a purpose. Angels are by definition messengers, "ev-angels"; and the good news they bear in this story is in every case a promise. If the theology of hope does not already have such it had better get an angelology quick; angels--promise-bearers--should be its stock in trade.

The angel appears to Zacharias (Luke 1:11). Zacharias understandably takes fright and the angel says, "Fear not" (1 :13). This phrase, repeated in each of the three annunciations, is significant. When man is faced with the open-ended possibilities of God-knows-what popping in on him from the undefined future, the first word of the theology of hope is: "Fear not!" God's promise controls that future and secures it against ultimate threat.

In verse 13, then, the angel annunciates a penultimate promise, the birth of a baby to Zacharias and Elizabeth--the age of the parents making this an "act of God" in a stronger sense than is the case with most births. "Joy," "exultation," and "rejoicing" get mentioned in the next verse; and it is made clear that these are occasioned not simply by the promise of a baby but, more pointedly, by the fact that he will be a harbinger of the ultimate promise. That such is to be his role is specified in verse 17, where he is called a forerunner possessed by "the spirit and power of Elias ... to make ready a people prepared for the Lord"; the indication is that he should be understood as a forerunner not so much of Jesus alone as of the Kingdom itself. In verse 19 the angel refers to his message as evangel; in verse 20, as promise.

In verse 26 Luke introduces a second annunciation, this one to the Virgin Mary. The angel appears, commands her to rejoice and calms her with a "Fear not!" His penultimate promise is, then, that she shall conceive and bear a son--this being a particular act of God in view of her virginity. That the birth of Jesus is but a penultimate promise pointing toward the ultimate is indicated in verses 32-33, where the angel says that the child shall be called "Son of the Highest," of whose "kingdom there shall be no end." This last cannot be said to have happened (Or to have happened completely) even yet; the promise to which the birth points is still outstanding. The annunciation closes with dialogue concerned expressly with the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Luke then describes the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, their conversation centering on joy (verses 42-45) and promise (verse 45).

As a counterpart to each of his annunciations Luke gives us a hymnic response on the part of the recipient, although the response does not always come immediately following the annunciation. Mary's hymnic response, the Magnificat, opens on the note of joy (verses 46-47) and moves into a meditation on the ultimate promise (verses 49 ff.). The hymn follows the style familiar from the Old Testament prophets, describing in the past tense that which actually has not yet happened. God's promise guarantees the future to the extent that it can be recounted as though it already had taken place. The hymn closes by equating the Abrahamic promise with this ultimate promise.

At this point in the story John is born. The event occasions joy (verse 58). Then, in verse 66, a new eschatological hallmark is introduced, that of pondering in the heart: "What manner of child shall this be!"

Now comes the hymnic response on the part of Zacharias. In the opening verses the theme of redemption/salvation (and that in universalistic terms) is very prominent. Related to this is the Abrahamic promise (verses 72-73). John is again characterized as forerunner (verse 76), and the event he foreruns is specified as that of the ultimate promise: "... the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." This, again, is more than can be claimed simply for the earthly career of Jesus. The final word of the hymn is, of course, shalom.

Chapter 2 opens with the birth of Jesus, followed by the third annunciation, to the shepherds. The angel appears; his first sentence (verses 10-11) is crammed with more of the theology of hope than is contained in most books on the subject: "Fear not!" ... "Good tidings of great joy" (an evangel) ... "to all the people" (the universality of ultimate promise) ... "born this day" (the penultimate fulfillment which guarantees the ultimate) ... "a Savior" (redemption/salvation).

The hymnic response, in this instance sung by the multitude of the heavenly host, is again highly concentrated theology of hope: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace [shalom]." And among men, delight (joy). Again the very universality of the promise discloses its reference to the ultimate rather than to anything actually accomplished during Jesus' earthly career.

The shepherds visit the manger. Mary ponders all these things "in her heart" (verse 19). And the shepherds return in joy (verse 20).

Luke next recounts Simeon's blessing of the baby in the temple. Though no angelic annunciation is described, it is implied; how did Simeon recognize this particular baby as the one for whom he waited? Simeon is characterized as one who was anticipating "the consolation of Israel" (verse 25)--nticiption being a most appropriate "hope" word and "the consolation of Israel" apparently an oblique reference to the Abrahamic promise. Simeon then gives a hymnic response that follows the earlier pattern. The fulfillment of the penultimate promise is covered with his "now" (verse 29)--i.e., now that Jesus has been born. He speaks of shalom in verse 29, of salvation in verse 30; in verse 32 he relates these to an explicit statement of the ultimate promise: a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel."

The prophetess Anna gets too short shrift to qualify for either an annunciation or a hymnic response, but what Luke does tell us of her is pure theology of hope: she "spake of him to all them that looked for [anticipated] redemption in Jerusalem" (verse 38).

Through all this Luke tells us something very important about Christmas. The Yuletide activity appropriate for us is not primarily that we "to the sessions of sweet silent thought ... summon up remembrance of things past." That remembrance is to be summoned not for itself but only that we may join the characters of Luke’s story in anticipatory joy of the ultimate promise, the fulfillment of which is yet to come and at the moment is still in process of coming.

Our perspective on Christmas should not be significantly different from that of Luke’s story. The case is not that his people had their joy in anticipating and then witnessing the fulfillment of events over which we now can rejoice only in retrospect. Not for a moment! Ours is a promissory joy just like theirs; indeed, it is joy in beholding the coming of the same promise. Of course, unlike them, we have seen the fulfillment of some of the penultimate promises, but this should only have the effect of heightening--if possible--our joy in and anticipation of the promise. after all, the greatest of these penultimate fulfillments was the resurrection; and if the resurrection says anything it says that the world has not seen the last of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ (if we may put it so) is nothing like an accomplished fact; Jesus Christ has a future--and that a real future, not simply the working out of the continuing consequences of his accomplished past.

Luke and the people of his story celebrated the coming of Jesus Christ because it was a promise of the future of Jesus Christ. And for us too the proper stance toward Christmas is not to look back toward Bethlehem but, with them, to look through the stable into the Kingdom of God.

Glory to God among the highest!
And on earth peace,
Among men, delight!
Our Lord, come!

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Copyright (c) 1968, The Christian Century