Monday, December 21, 2009

What Really Happened on Christmas? And Why?

In recent days, Christmas has become more of a commercial event - with Santa Claus, snow flakes, reindeers, Jingle Bells, fruit cakes, candy canes, etc - that the true history behind this greatest event ever known to man - has been forgotten amidst all the celebrations and shopping. If one were to walk back in history and witness this event in that manger in Bethlehem on that cold silent night - no celebration could equal the majesty of that moment. My narration below is merely a small attempt to explain this event as written in the Bible.

Joseph and Mary

About 2009 years ago, in the province of Galilee in Israel the land of Jews, a young virgin girl named Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph who was a carpentar. Nothing much is said in the Bible about the family background of Mary. From the events recorded, it appears she was a simple, humble, poor, God-fearing young lady.

Betrothal in Jewish customs was much different than its version today. It was more equivalent to an actual marriage. Once betrothed, the groom and bride were considered as husband and wife in all legal and religious aspects, except that they lived separately in their respective homes without any physical union, until the day of "Home Taking" when the groom came and took his bride.

The Birth Announced

At this time, when Mary was betrothed to Joseph and the "Home Taking" was yet to take place, GOD sent an angel Gabriel to Mary - explaining her the divine plan of GOD, and how she had found favor in the eyes of GOD to be part of this grand plan. One can't imagine how shocking it would have been for Mary. An event that would change mankind forever - an event that would divide history into two -  is going to happen, and GOD included her in HIS plan! Maybe she cried in happiness. Maybe she feared and just lost words. Maybe she just trembled and fell.

Like all other jews, Mary knew that this was the event that prophets had proclaimed all along for hundreds of years - the birth of the Messiah (meaning The Anointed One, The Saviour). This was the event that GOD promised in the garden of Eden - when Adam and Eve were deceived by Satan to disobey GOD and sin against HIM.

"Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son..."

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" 
 - Prophet Isaiah, 8th century BC.

Mary was told that although she was a virgin, she would conceive and bring forth a Son through the power of GOD, and He should be named JESUS. In the days that followed, Mary conceived miraculously as told by GOD. When Joseph came to know of Mary's pregnancy, he was troubled for he did not know that it was GOD's miracle. But the angel of GOD appeared to Joseph in his dream, asking him not to fear taking Mary as his wife - and that her pregnancy was due to GOD's miracle and the baby in her womb was GOD in human form - the Saviour of the World - the much awaited Messiah - Jesus the Christ.

The Birth in a stable

GOD took the form of flesh on that cold silent night in a stable in Bethlehem. The inn where Mary delivered did not have enough room to accomodate the new born child, and they were left to use the manger as a crib for the child. Manger is a carved stone or wooden construction used to hold food for animals in a stable. Angels announced His birth to the shepherds in the fields. Wise men from far off lands in the East were led by a star to Bethlehem. With such a humble birth, GOD proclaimed HIS love for the poor and meek. HE chose to be born in that dirty stable among the unpleasant odor, rather than a silky bed in a palace with aromatic candles all around.

It is but natural to see such a humble birth and ask, "Why did GOD take human form? What was the need?"

Creation and Sin

In the beginning, when GOD created man and woman, HE created them perfect and holy - in the image of GOD - just like HIM. They had no knowledge about sin. There was no death in that garden. All animals were herbivores - from lion to lamb - and they lived in peace without killing one another. GOD gave man dominion over all living creatures.  But the first man and woman (Adam and Eve) disobeyed GOD by eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge, and thereby brought sin into the world.

After the fall of man, GOD who is Holy, could not take man to live with HIM - since man had lost the glory of GOD and become a sinful creature having the knowledge of good and bad. Man was no longer perfect. GOD did not want the sinful man to live forever, and hence HE appointed death to take away the life of man. A Holy and Righteous GOD could not reconcile with a sinful man. The sinful nature in humans that we see today - originated from Adam - and it corrupted everyone after him. The Bible states that, all human beings are sinful, and they have fallen short of the glory of GOD.

God's Master Plan

Yet, GOD still loved man and wanted to redeem him, so that man can live with HIM forever - just as GOD had planned originally. But, it wasn't an easy task to redeem a sinful man. To redeem the sinful human race, someone had to bear the punishment for sin - and pay its price.

In the early days, GOD gave laws for man to follow - through HIS prophets (like the Ten Commandments). And man had to make animal sacrifices whenever he broke those laws - as a price for his sins. But animal sacrifices could not change the sinful nature of man. Man kept sinning even after making such sacrifices. The Old Testament of the Bible speaks in detail about this period in history - when man struggled to reconcile with GOD by following HIS laws and regulations.

But throughout the Old Testament period, GOD kept revealing HIS forthcoming master plan through HIS prophets - that a day will come when animal sacrifices would no longer be required - but GOD HIMSELF would come as a man in human flesh - and give HIMSELF as a living sacrifice and die for man's sins - and redeem him - and make way for him to reconcile with GOD and live an eternal life.

That day was Christmas.

Life of Jesus Christ

GOD in human form - the Messiah Jesus Christ - was thus born on earth - with the sole purpose of dying for our sins. His brief life of 33 years was incomparable. The Bible states that no man has ever lived like Him - before and after Him. History witnessed the Son of God (GOD in human form is referred as Son of God in the Bible) - walking the streets of Jerusalem - and performing miracles and wonders the world had never ever seen. No wonder, He divided history into two - BC and AD.

He proved He was from GOD through His actions. He was sinless. He performed miracles to show the Jews that He was the Messiah. He cured the sick just by words, opened the eyes of the blind, healed lepers, raised the dead back to life, and calmed the stormy sea by a command. His actions and the power He displayed - drew crowds behind Him. He had dominion over everything on earth: nature obeyed Him, the dead rose alive on His command, evil spirits feared His word - and He defied every scientific law of nature. A detailed account of His life is recorded in the first 4 books of the New Testament (the Gospels).

His Sacrifice and Resurrection

Yet, when His time had come, just as the prophets had said, He stood silent like a lamb - and gave Himself to be crucified in the cross - to fulfill the very purpose of His mission. He died to pay the price for our sins. This day is observed as Good Friday.

The whole of New Testament in the Bible revolves around this one focal point: His sinless blood was shed so that anyone who believed in HIM by faith and confessed that Jesus Christ is GOD - would get forgiveness and redemption from sins - and would enjoy an eternal life in heaven after death.

"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" - John 3:16

On the 3rd day after His death, He rose alive from death - proving He was indeed the Son of GOD (celebrated as Easter - the 3rd day after Good Friday) - and was seen by hundreds. His tomb in the land of Israel is still empty today. After resurrection, He rose to heaven through the clouds - witnessed by His disciples.

The Day of Judgement

The Bible ends with a prophecy about the future: the GOD of Justice and Righteousness would come again - not to redeem man - but this time it will be to judge.The Bible states many signals that indicate the approaching of this much-awaited and much-feared day. And many of those signals are already happening today.

Of course, GOD's judgement is to be feared. But, to make sure man gets a chance to escape that judgement, GOD showed HIS love for man - and that was on Christmas day.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Happy Lady

Visiting a post office has always been an exciting experience for me - as exciting as sitting on a cactus with cotton pajamas on and at the same time being spotted by the next door bull dog that sees me and starts chasing for no good reason. (Cactus or Bull dog - which is more exciting is a matter worth researching)

Have you ever visited a town post office in India? 

It would usually be a large hall where everyone would be seated - from clerk to branch manager. Usually, the branch manager is the only soul who gets some privacy behind a cubicle. There would be large ceiling fans, and only half of them would be running, and they would create a nice orchestral music. The ones that are not running would have cobwebs and dust, implying that the last time they ran - it was Mrs. Indira Gandhi who was the PM.

There would be a separate counter in a corner to buy stamps - and for some unknown reason it would always resemble a cage, fully fenced all over, with a small semi-circular opening to transact with the clerk inside. I always wondered why this guy received so much security. Most times the counter would be empty. You can either try enquiring the nearby clerks the whereabouts of this guy or you can just bang your head in a wall nearby - both give the same result. Although sometimes, I have to caution you, it is a wise practise to stand on your heels and peep inside the counter really deep. The clerk might actually be sitting inside, almost invisible for outsiders. 

In another corner would be the sticky table - a table with gum all over it, kept for public use. You can see people rubbing their fingers here and there on the table trying to locate a wet spot, and in the process the entire table gets sticky. And believe me, you will always find a wet spot. I've never seen people complaining that there is no gum left. They somehow manage to "extract" gum. Of course, there are others who wholely rely on their tongue for adhesive matters.

My experience with postal clerks too has mostly been not-so-memorable. Whenever I had approached them, they either hated me for disrupting their tea time or lunch time or wrapping-up time. And when I went on other times, the post office was usually closed. So, it has always been a challenging process.

In US, I understood that post offices can be extremely different - I mean, extreme in the other direction. 

Clerks are too lovey-dovey here. They greet us as if we are entering a wedding reception. "Helloooo there ! How you dooooooing !". The first time I heard this - I thought it was some kind of joke - until I heard the same greeting in the nearby counter. It was like standing in the middle of fairy land. So good to be true. But then, I got used to this lovey-dovey-land, for I too learnt the art of greeting "How you dooooing !".

However, one extraordinary postal clerk stands out in my mind.

She is the "Happy Lady" (I just named her so), who works in the USPS branch (United States Postal Service) near our house. She must be in her forties. She is one of the rarest human beings I've seen in my lifetime.  Let me narrate one of the many incidents.

A guy comes to her counter to buy few 42 cent stamps. With a blackberry in his hand, a blue-tooth in his ear, a big bushy moustache, a shining "minor" chain around the neck given by his father-in-law , a glittering gold watch, an ID card stuck to his shirt - well, I couldn't be wrong, he had to be a desi. She gives him a big smile with the usual lovey-dovey greetings, takes out 3 different sheets of stamps, lays them out neatly before him, and says, "Wow, look what we got! Lovely stamps...huh? Which one shall we go with? The pretty one with the US flag, or this gorgeous one with Christmas bells, or this really funny Santa Claus with Reindeer?" She blinks with all excitement, eagerly waiting for his selection.

This poor guy who had never bothered to take a second look at stamps all through his life - all of a sudden starts wondering if he has been missing something in his life, and starts looking at stamps a bit seriously. He thinks to himself, scratching his head, "What the heck! Why do I care what picture is on them? They are all the same price!". (I told you I can't be wrong, he is a desi)

She is not ready to give up. She adds, "Aren't they all lovely! My favorite would be the Christmas bells. Wow, I love those shiny silver bells... and see.. they even reflect the light from the fire place".

The guy is even more puzzled. "That is a silver bell?", he is wondering. Obviously, he hasn't been paying attention to the metal of the bell. "And where the heck is the fire place? Reflection? What reflection?". His brain is still catching up.

People in the queue look with eyes wide open - listening to this rare piece of conversation - and eagerly wait for his decision. It is clear that they didn't come to the post office planned for this. Now, this puts this guy under pressure. He is almost sweating.

She suddenly gestures as if she remembered something, "Hey guess what, I have some more stamps back there with snow flake and dinosaur pictures. Do you want me to bring them as well?".

Now, this definitely shocks him. If he doesn't act now, he might end up listening to how pretty the dinosaurs are. ("Look how cute the Stegosaurus is smiling! Look at his lovely rugged scales and claws!")

His brain senses the forthcoming danger, gets into the "fight or flight" mode, pumps all the adrenaline it can, and quickly rushes for a decision. He blabbers, "Err... anything is fine... I think... Christmas Bells... yes... lovely... place... please give that"

"That's great! You bought my favorite!", she shouts so happily and claps. Just when he thinks it is all over she comes back, "Now dear, how are we going to pay? You can give cash, or you can swipe your credit this slot, or you can just write me a nice little cheque or you can...". Well, he has already taken out cash, and hands over the exact change. As he walks to the door, I can see that he is still recovering from the shock.

Few minutes later, as I walk out of the door, I hear the Happy Lady saying to someone, "Wow, this cute package is going all the way to Wisconsin! That's a lovely place! I bet it is snowing out there, dear... isn't it? And I am sure Santa really needs a sleigh if he is visiting Wisconsin! Ha ha!". She laughs with real happiness (no faking), thoroughly enjoying her joke. Then she adds, "Would you like some stamps, dear?"

I quickly reach for the door. Different parts of the world; just how different can they be!