Prophecy has become a topic of conversation for the Christmas season, as Christians point to the prophet Isaiah, as well as a couple of other Old Testament prophets, to prove Jesus as the son of God. The word prophecy doesn’t quite mean the same thing that it used to, which is perhaps part of the issue. Whereas “Prophet” was once the title given to a person who was inspired to proclaim divine will, at some point it came to mean a fortune teller, prognosticator, or predictor of future events. Thus, at this time of year, many Christians go on a short-term crusade to “prove” the legitimacy of the church’s claims about Christ’s singular divinity, adding on the insistence that people say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” in the hopes that people will remember the “reason for the season” and turn to the Christian God.
My tone may suggest that I have some problems with that attitude. I don’t actually care what Christians want to believe about Jesus in the privacy of their own homes or churches. It does bother me, however, when I hear other people attempting to dictate what everyone else should believe. And here’s why: people can’t see into the future. Smart and well-informed people might make some insightful predictions about a particular trend, and sometimes listening to those people is a good idea, especially when it concerns the national economy and such. But a smart person also checks the facts. A prediction based on faulty information isn’t a very reliable prediction. Nostradamus (perhaps the most widely known “prophet” outside of the Bible) only has a 9% success rate with his forecasts, but of course some devotees will claim that the other 91% just hasn’t happened yet.
The Jewish prophets weren’t even trying to predict the future, though. They were “prophets” – proclaimers of divine will. They were sharing their insights about what was wrong and right with the world in which they lived from a divine perspective. Later on, people were so insistent on labeling Jesus as the Messiah figure who appears in some of that “prophecy” that they even write some silly things about his actions just to make the story fit together. The bottom line is that the prophets were writing for their contemporaries. Incidentally, this goes for the writers of the books of Daniel and Revelation, too, but that’s another topic altogether.
Just as one cannot use a word as its own definition, one cannot prove Biblical fortune-telling by the Bible itself. Instead, it would perhaps be more satisfying to actually remember the reason for the season, by which I mean, the meaning ascribed to this time of year before it was reclaimed and repurposed by a zealous imperialistic religion. The winter solstice has meant a lot of things to different cultures throughout history. Some see the passing of the solstice as a time of renewal, passing from dark to light as the days gradually begin to lengthen once again. It is a time for generosity, for sharing what we have with an attitude of abundance. It is a time for human warmth and affection to stand in for the warmth that is lacking from the sun. Winter reminds us of many things worth celebrating. We run the risk of missing the actual peace with one another and joy with life itself when we put on battle gear and set ourselves on a mission.
So, whether you prefer “Blessed Solstice” or “Happy Hannukah” or “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or any other iteration of the spirit of this time of year, remember that it isn’t the words that matter most. It is the attitude we cultivate, the people we honor, the gifts of life we appreciate, the hope we maintain for the future, and the joy we are willing to share in spite of differences. Which is largely what the prophets were getting at anyway. We are the reason for the season, actually. All of us who share this time and place together.