Good morning, and merry Christmas!
Our readings present us with an intriguing collage; let’s take a few minutes to ponder it.
The first reading, written when Jerusalem was under the heel of the Persian (Iranian) Empire, calls on the Lord to do something. The psalm, probably written when the Lord’s kingship was mirrored by the Davidic king in Jerusalem, but continuing in use when the Davidides were a distant memory, sounds the same notes: “Zion hears and is glad, and the cities of Judah rejoice, / because of your judgments, O Lord.” And the psalm imagines all this playing out in terms of the familiar contrast between the righteous and wicked: “The Lord loves those who hate evil; / he preserves the lives of his saints / and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.”
The Gospel. I love the scene of the angel and heavenly military appearing to the shepherds: it’s the Good Lord handing out cigars scene. And the angel’s announcement promises the fulfillment of all the hopes voiced in Isaiah and the psalm: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” However: Jerusalem is now under the even heavier Roman heel, so that we might wonder whether what Jerusalem needs is this baby or Arnold Schwarzenegger making a Terminator-style entrance into our space-time coordinates. Some years later Jerusalem wondered this too, and opted for Barabbas for the now-grown Jesus who kept spouting nonsense like “love your enemies.” And with the events of Holy Week any self-serving understanding of the psalm’s “righteous/wicked” contrast went out the window, as the religious authorities handed Jesus over to the Romans and the disciples fled. And Jerusalem, who had for so long pleaded for the Lord’s intervention said, when the Lord showed up, no thank you. Now what?
All that’s the backstory for Paul’s words in Titus: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.” Not because we got it right back then, or because we can be counted on to get it right now.
The Persian heel, the Roman heel, the many institutional and systemic heels today that grind down too many: the Lord responds not with Arnold, but with this baby. What does that tell us about how God understands power, about how God goes about getting things done?
Here’s the thing. Our culture treats the Christmas story as a sort of Rorschach, onto which we project all our assumptions and hopes. But the Christmas story is too specific for that: it affirms some of our hopes and overwrites most of our assumptions. To whom should the angel and heavenly military appear? To Caesar? To Herod? To the High Priest? God opts for the shepherds. Or, from Matthew’s account, Matthew describes Joseph as being a “righteous man,” and Joseph qua righteous man responds to Mary’s pregnancy with a plan to dismiss her quietly. So the first order of business is for an angel to have a quiet conversation with Joseph about what being righteous means. God would use the Christmas story, I think, to breathe life into our hopes and shake up our assumptions.
Luke tells us that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” We might do the same.