Sunday, December 3, 2023

Rethinking "Messiah"

 The kickoff of Advent today means that we will soon be hearing the word "messiah" a lot in the coming month.  From Handel's "Messiah" to multiple passages throughout Judeo-Christian scripture there are few religious terms more tossed about this time of year. The literal English translation for messiah from its Hebrew and Aramaic sources is "chosen one" or "anointed one."  The details on how it gets applied are an interesting study.

Messiah gets a lot of attention this time of year primarily from the Christian community's observances surrounding the birth of Jesus.  Christmas and Easter are the two most significant "holidays" in the Christian year.  The way messiah is viewed in Christianity is significantly different from its Jewish origins.

In Judaism the "anointed one" or "chosen one" was commonly a denoted individual with special leadership powers.  They might be kings, High Priests, or possibly prophets.  They were, most often believed to be consecrated by God to fulfill their roles. One of the most beloved such leader was King David.  David was a powerful warrior king with gifted military strategy sense.  He led the Jewish people into a prolonged period of peace about 1,000 years before Jesus.  Their warring neighbors were all conquered and Jewish life was, for the most part, prosperous and good.  This period became one to which Jewish hearts harken back.  "Would that a messiah could again reign as David did," We hear this theme echoed throughout a reading of the major and minor prophets of the First Testament. So, Jewish identity with a messiah can be summed up as the looking for a new (as yet unknown) "messiah" who will recreate the days of past peace and glory.

Christianity, on the other hand, co-opted the term "messiah" and built an entirely different concept around the term.  Theologically, Christians have claimed Jesus to be the Messiah (as in one and only.)  In the Gospel of Mark there is an entire literary game going on of keeping the "messianic secret" until who it is is finally revealed by Jesus himself.  While some very early Christian sects hoped in the militaristic overthrow of Rome by Jesus, when that clearly wasn't going to happen, the meaning of messiah shifted in the Church to be the watch for Jesus' return when the faithful ones would be gathered up and taken to heaven.  So, the Christian messiah was already determined and he would carry his chosen ones to a heavenly place of golden streets and eternal bliss with harps and angelic choirs.

It is understandable how Christianity fell into this mindset.  Life in the Roman Empire was wickedly difficult.  Many a Christian died gruesomely in the Roman arena. The Jewish community didn't like them and life only grew more ugly for all as the Empire's control slipped, emperors lost their minds, and marauding bands of Celts moved in from the north. Hoping for a deliverer, for Jesus to return and carry them away from it all was a tempting Calgon moment. For two thousand years now, this deliverance connection to the Messiahship of Jesus has held the attention of a majority of Christians.

World times and life events shift as do theological interpretations.  The Church has held tight theological constructs - enforcing a systematic view too often defended with heresy trials, stake burnings, torture, excommunication, threats of fiery hell, etc. to manipulate not just peasant populations, but monarchs and rulers as well. Creative peace loving conceptualizations of interactive partnerships with God have been frowned upon or worse until recently.  While there are radically different positive ways to shape spirituality, the Church has frequently remained frozen partly for fear of rocking adherents' loyalties and partly for the sinful attachment to hierarchical power and wealth. 

Considering messiahs, people of faith might be better served by returning to a more Jewish concept.  Who among us has a solid reality-based conceptual sense of the problems humanity is facing and what are the psycho-socio-spiritual principles by which humanity can pull themselves out of the hot soup we're in?  This person(s) could very much be the messiah(s) the earth is looking for.   

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