For Dec. 24 & 25, 2011: Christmas, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 9:2-7

In the time of the first prophecies of Isaiah, Ahaz the king must decide whether to try to save the kingdom from one powerful and ambitious neighbor by allying with another. Isaiah the prophet directs Ahaz to put his trust in God with this stirring hymn. The child whom Isaiah predicts is most probably Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, who will indeed rule righteously in God’s sight—but of course we read it as predicting the birth of Jesus. Alleluia!

 

The Epistle            Titus 2:11-14

After Isaiah’s soaring poetry and the Psalm, the passage from the letter of Titus seems short and blunt. The point is that we await the great light, the release from bondage, the judging in equity, and the eternal joy—and, while we wait for Jesus’ return, we ourselves have plenty to do to bring these things to pass.

 

Further thoughts

Isaiah points us forward out of darkness, devastation, and carnage to the light of justice, righteousness, and peace by way of a wielder of authority and might whose wisdom will get the job done. This ringing prophecy is said of a child, to be sure, but clearly a king’s child: someone of whom it is appropriate to expect great things.

It is a challenge to square this vision with the much humbler birth that we celebrate in Bethlehem—and that, it seems, is precisely the point. This child born to us is no conqueror coming in might to fix the world by breaking it to his will. Generations of rulers before him and after have attempted that feat, and some have even had good intentions—but all have failed. This world and the people in it cannot be fixed by force, not even by force of will.

We humans find this astonishing: how much tidier if one could simply command human beings into righteousness, peaceability, and a host of other virtues. It’s evident, however, that God’s view of this is different.

I think there are several reasons for this. One of them is that none of us mortals is so much less broken than the others that we are competent to enforce our will on others totally or permanently. Even a small child must be allowed some scope to make choices and take chances, if she is to grow into our baptismal mandate to will and to persevere, and the wise parent must learn when and how to yield that authority.  Another reason is that force never lifted up a fainting heart, nor did punishment alone ever make a generous heart.

For the Babe in Bethlehem does not come to fix the world from the outside in, but rather to make the world new from the inside out through love, one heart at a time.

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