Translating Christmastime by Mark KnightMark Knight - 26 Dec 2006
Euagelio (that we cal gospel) is a greke worde,
and signyfyth good, mery, glad and joyfull tydings,
that maketh a mannes hert glad,
and maketh him synge, daunce and leepe for ioye.’
(William Tyndale, Bible Translator, 1525)
‘What does Christmas really mean?’, asks the preacher again. Christmastime always bothers Christian people. Each year people speak casually at parties, from pulpits and in Hollywood premières about the celebration of Jesus’ birth as a season of goodwill to all, or time to remember those less fortunate than ourselves. We’re worried that these words and ideas have been translated into something else by our culture - that, forgetful of the gospel, they now mean new (and vaguer) things: mere words.
Alas, these are are the Scriptures they’re translating! The voices of people trying to use the word ‘goodwill’ on us at this time of year are drowned out only by the heavenly multitude, whom in their bizarre, worshipful cabaret put on for the shepherds are shouting, as Tyndale translated: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men!’ (Luke 2.14, KJV)
The angels are bringing ‘good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ (Luke 2.10-11, NRSV). Has this ‘good news’ of Jesus been translated away to nothing today?
Of course its not just the words we use but the way we use them. We translate ‘gospel’ from the Greek euaggelion, and it means ‘good news’. In fact, the earliest followers of Jesus did not simply invent the word ‘gospel’, and recently the academics have dredged up the word’s intriguing redneck past…
About ten years before Jesus was born, the Romans celebrated Caesar’s birthday with a nice message posted around the cities of the Empire. In it, they joyfully mentioned that Caesar, bringer of ‘peace’ and ’saviour’: ‘gave a new look to the entire world’, and that his birthday ’spells the beginning of life’ because he was ‘God’, who ’signalled the beginning of good news for the world because of him’!
When Jesus’ followers wrote, no-one could hear them talk about Jesus as God’s ‘good news’ and not realise that word placed him directly at odds with Caesar, Lord of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ birth makes a fundamental counterclaim: an alternative ‘new look’, a different ‘beginning of life’, another ‘peace’ and a true ’salvation’. Shaped by Jesus, the earliest Christian communities hijacked all these words in their translations, as a radically different ‘good news’ spread all over the place. This Christmastime, remembering he was born, Israel’s Messiah will make the same counterclaim upon all our lives, families, communities and governments.
Christmas is the season of goodwill: God’s ‘peace, goodwill toward humankind’. Here at Jesus’ birth begins a story of life, death and resurrection through which God brings knowledge of salvation, forgives our sin, sheds light on our darkness and guides our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1.77-79). Taking root, this good news brought a community into being that would be God’s agent and ambassador in translating this unanticipated goodwill for the world: ‘All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.’ (2 Corinthians 5.16-21).
As Jesus tells us more about what euaggelion means, placid speech about those less fortunate has God’s Messiah to contend with. About thirty years after Jesus was born, he stood in the synagogue to say, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.’ (Luke 4.18-19). Mary had earlier said Jesus would ‘lift up the lowly’ and fill ‘the hungry with good things’ (Luke 2.46-56).
Leaving there, he spent life with beggars, prostitutes, sinners and tax-collectors (Luke 5.27-32). He asked his followers to sell up everything and give to the poor (Luke 5.11, 28; 12.33; 14.33; 18.22). He made disciples of them all. Shaped by Jesus, the Jerusalem church began to translate his words and example into a community in which everything was shared, and in which ‘great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them’, and ‘daily the Lord added to their number those who were being saved’. (Acts 2.24-27; 4.32-37)
I am more convinced than ever that the birth of Christ is about those less fortunate: the poor should no longer be poor, the hungry should no longer hunger. In reality, Caesar’s “good news” oppressed the poor: Jesus calls his people to live alternatively, in servant-subversion of the world’s exploitation (Matthew 25). Paul wanted to remember to help the poor (Galatians 2) and organised a collection to help the poverty (and not the building-extension) of the Jerusalem Church (2 Corinthians 8). John sharply criticised the exploitative system of the Empire (Revelation 18). Whilst none of this is only physical, to spiritualise away the ‘poverty’ Jesus speaks of is just bad translation.
Translation doesn’t finish with words, but with communication. As his church, our task is to reach deeply into the meaning of this season and seek an authentic translation of euaggelion into our communities in our time. The word euaggelion actually means not just a season, but the new age of goodwill to all humankind, and good news for those less fortunate. Phrases that really have become vague translations of what our response to Jesus’ birth should be are ironically and amusingly translatable into an oddly sharp challenge for the Christians that bemoan them (especially myself). Engagement with the poor and marginalised, whether that means selling a car or giving the hand of friendship (no, tax-collectors weren’t poor, but they were marginalised!) is not the low-budget sequel to the Gospel blockbuster, but part of its very plot line.
But just as the New Testament doesn’t know what mission without justice looks like, neither does it know what justice without mission looks like. The earliest Christians met people’s needs and people were added to their number daily. It is because the good news for the poor is at the heart of the gospel and not at its borders, that we must continually refuse to be communities that engage with the poor in an anonymous way: this too is bad translation. We are called to make disciples, not donations. Becoming involved with the least of our communities must involve them in our community: the earliest Christians wrote not just to the church about the poor, but to the poor who make up the church (1 Corinthians 11.17-22; James). We must live in and respond imaginatively to the the tension of that.
The Moravians taught us again that this translation begins with Jesus in prayer. They also show that this mission and justice will always end in prayer: the creation of a bride called the church that meets God, meets one another and meets needs.
This deep, dynamic interpenetration of prayer, mission and justice within the very heart of the saving move of God that we call euaggelion or ‘good news’ is a word whose sound we are only just beginning to have ears for, let alone translate. Those who begin to mouth its syllables will be liable to break off as Paul once did as he considered the three together: ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’ (2 Corinthians 9.15)
As for Tyndale five-hundred years hence, so be it to us. May our lives be translated by Good News this Christmastime: signifying good, merry, glad and joyful tidings; making hearts glad, making them sing, dance and leap for joy. So much more than a Greek word.