Christmas is the celebration of a conclusion. A baby who cannot yet talk is the divine Word of God spoken to humankind. A child lying in a manger on a dark night in a poor town completes thousands of years of sacred history.

Mary’s firstborn is God’s last word. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Heb. 1:1–2, RSV).

God’s first recorded speech in Scripture consisted of words of one syllable: “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). The first thing we are told about God is that in creating a place for humanity, he provided visibility. He did not leave us to grope in darkness. God let humankind see where they were going.

The simplest and most elementary condition of human existence is the subject matter for God’s first word. Beyond the satisfaction of her needs, light is the first reality a baby shows awareness of. Before she can see a face or distinguish a father from a mother, she sees and can re­spond to light. Just so basic is the content of God’s first word in creation. He offered no complicated notions on predestination, reconciliation, or sanctification—only the one-syllable words “Let there be light.”

The early chapters of Genesis are a primer on God. God spoke using words that everyone could grasp: day, night, earth, trees, waters, stars, birds, fish, beasts, man. Before we have read past the first chapter, we have heard God speak a basic and decisive word to us in terms that a child can understand. We turn the pages and hear of sin and murder, war and judgment, music and crafts, build­ing and history. We hear the profound words of God speaking to us of his will and his ways.

We come to the great names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. God was still speaking, and his word was expanding. The history and lives of these people became the vocabulary of God’s message. There was still no mistaking it for anything other than the word of God, but he filled out the narrative and filled in the details of each life situation.

God called Abraham, accompanied Isaac, changed Jacob, and saved Joseph. The message still carried a majestic simplicity, but the context grew more intricate and com­plex to match the intricacy and complexity of our lives.

The words multiplied in Moses’ story. Thousands of people were forged into a new nation. Their lives were placed in relation­ship and formed countless possibilities for sin, faith, rejection, re­bellion, worship, and love. And with each new event came a new word. Moses transmitted the word of God in commandment, regu­lation, and exhortation to the people of God (Israel).

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Because many people were living in close proximity, Moses had to render fine ju­dicial decisions. Because long stretches of time separated promise from fulfillment, he had to preach convincing sermons. The word of God found new applications and fresh situations. The primer of Genesis chapter one gave way to an advanced-level textbook.

The centuries passed, and in imitation of Moses, many tried their hands at speaking the word of God. They shouted advice, counsel, rebuke, and guidance to the people. Some of the speaking bore authenticity; some of it was patently spurious. But the net ef­fect was confusion.

With so many “words” of God being spoken, who could hear the word of God? God restored authority and le­gitimacy to his word by inaugurating a kingship in Israel: Saul, David, and then Solomon. No longer could people set themselves up to speak to the nation. God had his anointed through whom he ruled and spoke. Credentials accompanied the spokesperson for God. Organization and coherence again encompassed the word of God.

But then, as so often happens, the organization became profes­sionalized. The word of God turned into a formal edict. The insti­tution became dead to its Lord. The kings grew more interested in politics than in prayer, more engrossed in government than in God.

And this created a new way of speaking the word of God: through the prophets. Isaiah thundered, Jeremiah wept, Amos denounced, and Hosea pled. Indifference gave way to sensitive response. Deaf ears were traded for alert minds. The prophets were gifted with eloquence and insight. They spoke the word of God with power and clarity. It was an exciting word, a glad word. No human word could stand in comparison to it.

This passage from Isaiah reverberates down to our times:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good tidings,
who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Hark, your watchmen lift up their voice,
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you waste places of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:7–10, RSV)

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As all this was written down and pondered by succeeding gen­erations, it brought bewilderment and confusion. It needed inter­pretation. A new profession came into being to guide the people through the forest of words. Scribes and rabbis became the peo­ple’s allies in hearing the word of God. They in turn wrote com­mentaries and interpretations of what had been written, and their words soon engulfed the word of God in an ocean of comment.

Yet what the people needed was not another commentary but a conclusion—not another book but a last chapter to the book they already had. The process could become interminable, so there had to be a stopping place. The logical search for complete truth would never end. The people needed a revelation.

So, God spoke a last word: Jesus. But there is a surprising dif­ference in this word. Jesus is not just a speechmaker for God; he is God. His whole being is a word of God—his presence, his action, and his talk. We complain that the deeds of some people speak so loudly that we cannot hear what they say.

Yet we cannot make that complaint of Jesus, for his deeds and words are identical. Jesus became an event. He was a stopping place for sacred history. The birth of Jesus was like arriving at the top of a mountain peak after a long, difficult climb: You can look back and see the whole trip in perspective, see everything in true relationship. And you don’t have to climb anymore.

But I have been talking as if everyone has spent years struggling with the meaning and conclusions of the Old Testament. More likely, you have not read it through for years, or maybe you have never read it at all. What does this text say to you who have not pondered the first words, who have not been bothered by the frag­mentariness of Scripture? Will the last word have any meaning if you have not read the first word? Will the answer make any sense if you have never asked the question?

A great many Old Testament prophecies had been left unful­filled. Many things were said of the future that never came to pass. Many hopes were articulated that no reality ever confirmed. And then Jesus was born in Bethlehem. One of the great thrills of the early church was seeing this great mass of unfulfilled detail sud­denly come together in fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The Old Testa­ment suddenly had a point to it—and the point was Jesus.

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We can see the operations of their excited minds in all the New Testament letters: “This was done in fulfillment of Isaiah … of Moses … of Jeremiah …” (see Matt. 2:17, 4:14; Luke 24:44). All the loose ends were tied together. All the strained interpreta­tions they had been forced to manufacture to hold things together could now be thrown out because Christ held things together in a conclusion. All their labored attempts to explain away inconsis­tencies and gaps now were done away with because Jesus gave all the words wholeness and integrity.

This is why the church has consistently insisted on the necessity of keeping and reading the Old Testament. There was a strong movement in the first centuries of the church to abolish the Old Testament. Those believers reasoned that since we have everything in Christ, why bother with all the incompleteness and fragmentari­ness of Israel?

Why plow through all those genealogies (such as 1 Chronicles 3:10, RSV, which says, “The descendants of Solomon: Rehobo’am, Abi’jah his son, Asa his son, Jehosh’aphat his son”) when one really needed to know only the name above every name—Jesus? But the church didn’t accept this reasoning.

All of that really is the word of God spoken to humankind in various conditions and times: The word is as true as ever. Although it is old, it is not obsolete. Although it is ancient, it is not antiquated. And if it is not read, the foundation of Jesus is never understood. To skip reading the Old Testament would be to skip the first thirty-nine chapters of a forty-chapter book.

The Confession of 1967 summarizes the church’s stance: “The Old Testament is indispens­able to understanding the New, and is not itself fully understood without the New.” This is why it is the usual practice to give an exposition of the Old Testament during Advent, so that the gospel of Christmas is seen in its true setting.

But while the importance of reading the Old Testament cannot be too strongly emphasized, I cannot say that everything depends on it. If you are one of the many who do not read it or have not read it enough, you will still find a meaning in the text. The reason is that God has not confined his speaking to what is recorded in Scripture. That is where his authoritative word is written, but he has spoken many other times and in many other places—in places where we have been and at times when we have heard him.

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If each of us were to write a completely honest and thorough history of our personal life up to the present, that would in many ways parallel the writing we call the Old Testament. That autobi­ography would begin with the simplest facts: birth, life, light, food, parents, disobedience, and rebellion. And as the years increased, the words would become more difficult and the arrangement more complex.

From the simple elemental realities of infancy would come the intricate emotional, physical, and mental realities of ado­lescence and adulthood. Nothing that we would thus record would be untrue, but we would have to confess that much of it did not make sense. Many thoughts, events, feelings, and experiences would appear to be in contradiction and at cross-purposes.

The body makes promises for which there is no fulfillment. The emo­tions cry out for satisfaction that is never given. The mind asks questions for which no answers are found. As we look back on them, our lives quite undeniably happened, but do they go any­where? Is there any central meaning or any conclusion?

Our private doubts, disappointments, frustrations, and strangely incomplete joys can fill in the details of such a story.

Whatever its specifics, it will echo in a remarkable way the experi­ence of the men to whom God spoke in “many and various ways … by the prophets.” This experience is the context for the last word of God in Jesus. The word of God conclusive in Jesus gives sense and meaning to every person’s life. This gospel is the affirmation to what in W. B. Yeats was only surmise:

What the world’s million lips are thirsting for,
Must be substantial somewhere.

For many people, Christmas is a dreary time. Maybe it is that way for more people than we think. The labored and frantic ef­forts to bring merriment into the holiday lead us to suspect that the good cheer is not rooted in “substantial” joy. The demand for happiness and well-wishing that society and friends impose on one and all pushes some who have hearts full of despair and unhappi­ness only further into gloom.

And all of us—even the relatively happy and optimistic—when we look into our own souls discover great areas of emptiness. We live on the surface; frivolity is charac­teristic of us. Can joy spring from such a well? Can merriment be structured on such a foundation?

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It can, if we have another word to listen to besides the words from our own inadequate, fragmentary pasts.

When the stories about Jesus’ birth took form in the early church, they emphasized the fact that it was night when he was born. The shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night; the wise men were following the star through the night; in Herod’s gloomy midnight councils all the little children of Bethlehem were to be slain, and in every way it was against encompassing darkness that Christ’s coming shone out.

When people now say that these are dour times in which to keep Christmas (the time of the Vietnam War, of world poverty, of secularism, of commercialism, of nuclear terror), they forget this basic fact about the Christmas stories. This is indeed a dark time. In easier times we left the night out of the picture and made of the Christmas season a light­hearted holiday of festival and merriment, but now we are back where Christmas started—with its deep black back­ground behind the Savior’s coming, like midnight behind the star.

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has ob­tained is more excellent than theirs (Heb. 1:1–4, RSV).

To us a child is born, to us a son is given (Isaiah 9:6). Amen.

Excerpted from Lights a Lovely Mile by Eugene H. Peterson. Copyright © 2023 by Eugene H. Peterson. All rights reserved.

No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Eugene H. Peterson is the late translator of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language and author of more than thirty books, including As Kingfishers Catch Fire and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.