Christmas and the holiday season are now in the rear-view mirror. Nevertheless, for me they blend into the early part of the New Year.
Each December and January, I spend time reassessing my life-priorities, how I am living relative to them, and what habits and activities I need to change or start so that my daily actions correspond with my intentions. I think of this as a periodic life audit.
For me it includes a hard look at the prior year.
A component of this self-analysis is meditatively considering some treasured readings, including the beginning of each of the New Testament Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — their traditional order).
I also read the Book of Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament. I think Jesus consistently identified with some of its emphases. For example, God demanded his people "learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, [and] plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:17). He also refers to "the poor" as his "people" (Isaiah 3:15). Further, in the context of the pending return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, God implored his "servant, Israel" (Isaiah 49:3) to be "a light to the nations, [so] that [God's] salvation may reach the end of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6).
Isaiah is a long and complex book. In its current form, it is probably a compilation of three books from different Jewish eras spanning more than 200 years. This enhances these consistent, prominent and inclusive threads of justice and compassion for the needy.
Returning to the New Testament Gospels, the Christmas characters and stories are quite familiar to most Christians, including Joseph's dreams, the wise men from the East, Zechariah and Elizabeth (parents of John the Baptist), the angel Gabriel, Mary and the shepherds. Interestingly, these seemingly formative accounts come from only two of the four canonical Gospels: Matthew and Luke. There is no more emphasis on the birth of Jesus in the entire New Testament.
As a Christian, I appreciate and take to heart the substantive importance and traditional focus on these important birth narratives. I also recognize the value of considering and comparing the emphatic starting points of each Gospel, especially relative to their generally understood historical order.
The probable order of composition is Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, with all of them penned over about 40 years, starting around 65 AD/CE. Each of the four in historical order starts in a different context with a temporal rollback of sorts:
1. John the Baptist baptizing Jesus as an adult (Mark).
2. Mary already pregnant (Matthew)
3. Elizabeth not yet pregnant with John the Baptist (Luke)
4. The beginning of time itself (John, who tells his readers at the outset that Jesus was "the Word" and was both "with God" and "was God" from "the beginning," John 1:1 and 14).
Essentially, comparing these beginnings demonstrates a progressive deification of Jesus over time among the earliest churches in the first century AD/CE as followers reflected upon his teachings and life events, especially how he qualitatively lived along with emphases on his death and resurrection.
I like the attention during Advent on the two familiar infancy narratives as sign-posts for all readers of Matthew and Luke, especially children, including my five grandchildren. These stories gently, simply and clearly emphasize that Jesus was and is someone special, with the resulting imperative for us to pay attention to his life-model and teachings. Nevertheless, my Gospel beginning preference is Mark, the earliest one, which also factors more into my annual self-evaluation process.
Mark starts with John the Baptist and his baptism of an adult Jesus. Mark highlights a compelling summary of teachings when Jesus says in Mark 1:15: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news" (emphasis added). Immediately after this encapsulation, Jesus calls his first four apostles away from their fishing vocation with an invitation and mandate: "Follow me" (Mark 1:16-20).
Jesus' message at his initial "coming" onto the scene as a rabbi in time was for all of us to repent. This means fundamentally changing by developing ourselves with God's help into new persons with fresh habits that work for God's priorities in our world. The transformational root for Christians is authentically following Jesus' teachings and example. He focused on the best and highest aspects of his Jewish tradition, including loving and caring for others in need as well as pursuing justice for the poor, oppressed and outcasts.
A New Year or any other chosen introspective season offers an opportunity to reflect on these and other faith-based priorities. In response, we can identify needed changes in our lives to more effectively implement and live them out day-to-day.
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads discussion groups in association with Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin and also speaks with other groups. His book, “The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living,” will be published later this year.