The Rev. Tom McAlpine was our preacher on Christmas Day.
Our first lesson and, in particular, the couplet “The Lord has bared his holy arm / before the eyes of all the nations” got my attention as I prepared this homily. I’d invite you to join me in rummaging around in it for a bit.
That first lesson comes from that part of Isaiah which initially addressed the Judean exiles in Babylon. Despite appearances, Yahweh, Israel’s God, has not forgotten them, and is not powerless in the face of Babylon’s many gods. Yahweh is about to display his power, bring the exiles home, bring joy to Jerusalem. ““The Lord has bared his holy arm / before the eyes of all the nations.”
So the first part of the lesson. If we tried to imagine what that might look like, we might turn to the psalm we used, Psalm 98: images of royal majesty and power, complete with “His right hand and his holy arm / have gotten him victory.” Images like this occur frequently in our Christmas carols. “Joy to the World,” with which we’ll be closing this Mass, is almost a paraphrase of Psalm 98!
But the second part of our lesson goes in a very different direction: it speaks of many being astonished and startled by the sorry appearance of Yahweh’s servant, a servant who will nevertheless finally “be exalted and lifted up.” There’s such a change in tone that we often treat the two parts separately. We read the first part at Christmas and the second part during Holy Week. But the book puts the two parts together. If we’d read one verse further, we would have encountered “Who has believed what we have heard? / And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” “The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations;” “to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” That suggests some sort of identity between that holy arm and the servant. The book doesn’t explain; it just juxtaposes the two parts as a profound riddle.
It’s not until the birth that we’re celebrating today that we’re in a position to recognize the meaning of the riddle: the Lord’s “holy arm” manifest in this baby. It’s an astonishing and counter-intuitive deployment of divine power.
We get a different expression of that counter-intuitive deployment in today’s Gospel. The evangelist starts with the logos, the personified reason that undergirds all creation, which our English translations render as “the word.”
3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (Jn. 1:3-5 NRS)
It’s hard to imagine a status more majestic. But then—from the perspective of the Hellenized world in which the evangelist is writing—he blows it:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
Flesh—for the Greeks—that dubious, limited, and vulnerable dimension of life from which the more optimistic philosophies and sects promised release. “And the word became flesh.” Of all the deployments of divine power we might have expected…
Christmas is traditionally a celebration. That’s good—but unless we’re careful it can sidetrack us from the astonishment it should elicit. What oppressed Jews had been fervently praying for was something like twelve legions of angels that would send the Roman legions…somewhere else. What they got was a baby.
There are hints—sometimes big hints—throughout the Old Testament that Yahweh has odd ideas about how divine power is properly deployed. At Christmas these odd ideas move to center stage.
Another example, not unrelated to the Christmas story. If we go back nine months to the Annunciation, the conversation between the angel and Mary doesn’t end until Mary says:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk. 1:38 NRS)
What’s remarkable about that is that in the Greco-Roman world into which Jesus was born there are countless stories of gods impregnating human women, many of them of Zeus, head of the pantheon. Zeus doesn’t look for consent—the idea wouldn’t occur to him. Gabriel, Yahweh’s messenger, understands that the conversation isn’t over until Mary’s “let it be with me according to your word.”
Greco-Roman culture and our culture usually assume that the point of power is to enhance our security, decrease our vulnerability—maximize our pleasure. Jesus’ Father assumes that the point of power is service to the other, even when that degrades security and increases vulnerability. Depending on what slice of our lives we’re contemplating, we sometimes hear this as good news, sometimes as not-so-good news.
Christmas is about Jesus’ birth. It’s also—as I’ve been noticing—about his Father’s odd ideas about what to do with the arm of the Lord, how to properly deploy divine power. And that’s important, I think, because unless we recognize that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” also applies to the use of divine power, we’ll complicate our attempts to understand God’s uses of power, and also make some dangerous assumptions about the uses of human power that please God.
We sing “What child is this?” Great song. Great question. Perhaps it might prompt an additional question: “What God is this who thinks that the best possible response to the human condition is to send this Child?”