Advent is a season of traditions. One of my family’s most cherished customs is sharing cheese fondue on Christmas Eve. Way back when my parents were poor, sometimes hungry, medical students in Italy, my aunt and uncle were church-planters in France. Every Christmas for six years, we’d all travel halfway, meeting my aunt and her family in Switzerland.
The night before Christmas, we’d share a common Swiss meal of fondue. My cousin and I loved spearing a hunk of crusty bread and dipping it into the smooth cream in the common pot, but neither of us could stomach the mixture of wine and strong cheese. Once we returned to the United States, my mother found a recipe more to our liking, and now we’ve maintained this tradition for over forty years.
But that’s not so impressive when you consider the ultimate waiting-for-Jesus story. Luke 2:22–39 describes, not a 40-, but 1400-year-old tradition.
Like us, Jesus’ parents are spending their Christmas season “according to custom.” They are repeating family and religious traditions. But their customs, while they have everything to do with Jesus’ birth, have nothing to do with hanging sparkling lights or shopping for new sweaters.
Jesus’ parents are suffering an economic downturn. Luke tells us they entered the Temple to offer a pigeon and a dove for Mary’s post-partum purification, which is what the law allows if a family cannot afford a lamb and dove (Lev 12:2–8). It seems they’ve already spent it all to ransom Jesus from being sacrificed. That’s the other birth tradition they’ve come to fulfill.
This particular custom of ransoming baby boys, instead of sacrificing them, began in Exodus. As with the tithe, where the Israelites trust God with the first fruits of the harvest, here they offer first-born animals and humans. First-borns are set apart for God. They are holy. Their sacrifice commemorates God’s victory over Egypt, and its gods, and its king Pharaoh (Exod 13:14–15).
When the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt, God told Pharaoh to let them go. God considered Israel to be his own first-born son and he was finished with how Pharaoh was treating his child. Pharaoh refused. So God took Egypt’s first-born sons in the final plague. After the Egyptians had paid this terrible price to save their nation from utter destruction, then they let the Israelite’s go.
This is the story that Jewish parents told their children to explain the ransom of their own first-born. For five silver Temple-shekels (Num 18:16), which in Jesus’ day equaled about twenty days’ wages, baby boys were bought back instead of killed.
By the time Jesus is redeemed, this meaning has gotten a bit stale. I can imagine a child asking, “Father, if he rescued us out of Egypt, why doesn’t he save us from Rome?” The Jews were still performing the traditions and telling the story of God’s redemption, but was he faithful?
Traditions are like that. They stem from past stories, but they also come loaded with present expectations. In Jesus’ day, there were people who felt their hope for rescue from the Roman Empire rise when a baby boy was redeemed. But there were others who viewed those five shekels as bleak proof of God’s abandonment.What traditions do you practice during Advent and Christmas? How would you feel if you couldn’t do them this year or someone changed your favorite one? What do your traditions mean to you?