A day to look forward by looking backward. In this case "looking backward" means back to 2006 (I have been at this too long). I'm leaving it as it was, with only the inclusion of the scriptures mentioned.
What follows are notes from a lecture I gave this morning. I was asked a month ago to teach the class, and came up with this idea of the "songs" behind the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke. The basic idea revolved around the idea of occupation: of Israel as an occupied country under Rome, and Babylon, but even before the Exile, under God. Occupation is sort of the defining principle of Israel, in the scriptures. I wouldn't press that insight to a point of ultimate concern, but it opens a few doors and allows a few interesting insights.
Which spilled out of me over the course of a few hours last night, when I finally sat down to prepare for this lecture. The results of those hours follow, virtually unchanged. The entire experience made me realize I've been spending too much time concerned with matters about which I can do nothing (will the Senate confirm Alito? Should they? Will people "buy" another war in the Middle East? are they that stupid?), and too little time on matters close to my heart.
This may not be the proper corrective for this blog, but I thought the ideas were, at least, interesting.
Israel as a country occupied by God.
God is, of course, the “creator” of Israel, in confession as well as reality. The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah (!) present the image of a God who forces compliance which, although its goal is good, is in tension with the will of the people, by being in tension with the will of the prophet. This is a necessary tension, but it is a tension, nonetheless. That tension reaches a breaking point with the Exile, the defining event of Israel’s history that supercedes even the Exodus in the psyche of the nation. Then Israel, having rejected occupation by God as intolerable, is made vulnerable to occupation by a human power; an occupation from which it never really recovers.
And it is from that occupation, that Exile and return, that Israel begins to hope to receive the Messiah. And it is the connection to that history that the Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke speak, and to which they reach out. And that connection, as the Christmas story has primarily been connected to generations throughout time, is made through songs.
The gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus Christ; which is not his last name, but his title. It is the family tree of the Anointed One, the Messiah; and that fact alone recalls immediately the genealogies that the Exile made necessary, as families returning from Babylon and around the area tried to decide, a generation later, who was the child of who, who was a descendant of one of the tribes, who was another of the children of Abraham. And so Matthew beings: “The genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.” And this itinerant peasant from Nazareth is immediately identified with the father of nations, and the greatest king of the nation of Israel. And we are immediately reminded of the Exile, of the first occupation of Israel, in the time of the second occupation of Israel, and after the second fall of Jerusalem, and the second diaspora of Abraham’s descendants.
This is a story told during yet another occupation. Once again, the nation is occupied by foreigners, even as it struggles to remain occupied by God. And so the great break point in the genealogy is the deportation to Babylon, and then the time after that: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Exile; fourteen from the Exile to the Messiah. God still occupies Israel, and always will.
But occupation brings a sense of oppression, a sense of danger. Joseph is engaged to Mary, but to his shame she is pregnant. Only when he learns in a dream that this is to fulfill prophecy does he decide he can relax, and accept this pregnant woman as his wife. And when the child is born, Joseph names the child Joshua, Jesus in the koine Greek of the gospels, which means “Yahweh is salvation.”
Occupation brings not only the sense of oppression, but true oppression. The birth of the Messiah is not an event that can happen quietly. When God came to Moses on the mountain there was theophany: thunder and lightning and clouds. When God came to Elijah there was a wind, and then an earthquake, and then fire: God was in none of those things, but nature could not be quiet when God was present. And so Creation must announce the birth of Messiah, but who will read the signs? Magi; magicians; men of wisdom and learning from another land; for truly, as Jesus would later say, a prophet is not honored in his own country. And surely his own people will not know him first. So comes the epiphany.
And straight from scripture it comes: for here is the amazing thing. Does knowledge come from revelation, or does it come from discovery? Do we learn what is most important for us to know, what is of “ultimate concern,” or is it revealed to us? Matthew and the Hebrew people would say that it is revealed, and would point to the story of Abraham, of Joshua, of Samuel and David and the call of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, of Amos and Hosea and even Jonah, as their proof. We do not seek God so much as God seeks us, and we do not know what is most important to know so much as God reveals it to us: if we will listen; if we will see; if we will learn.
And so the Magi come just as expected. But why do we know to expect it? Because Psalm 72 has told us it will happen. Not in the simple sense of prophecy, “as it is written:” but in the complex sense of a revelation, an enactment of what the Psalmist said would happen as a sign of God’s favor and the righteousness of the king to whom God gives God’s judgment.
Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king's son.
2 He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment.
3 The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.
4 He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.
5 They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations.
6 He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth.
7 In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth.
8 He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.
9 They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust.
10 The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.
11 Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.
12 For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper.
13 He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy.
14 He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in his sight.
15 And he shall live, and to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba: prayer also shall be made for him continually; and daily shall he be praised.
16 There shall be an handful of corn in the earth upon the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon: and they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth.
17 His name shall endure for ever: his name shall be continued as long as the sun: and men shall be blessed in him: all nations shall call him blessed.
18 Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things.
19 And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; Amen, and Amen.
20 The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.
There is much in that Psalm that repays study in light of the nativity stories, and the gospel stories. There is much that is connected to the ministry of Jesus, and to the songs of Luke’s nativity tale. But I want to pay attention to the kings who come bringing presents.
We call them “kings” because of this Psalm, even if we don’t know the connection between Matthew and Psalm 72. That isn’t what Matthew calls them: he calls them “magi.” He calls them “astrologers.” The Psalmist says the kings of foreign countries will come and offer gifts, the kings of Tarshish and Sheba and Seba. But Matthew lives under oppression, and any mention of foreign kings and any naming of nations is dangerous, so his “magi” come only from the East, from outside the Empire, and they are not kings, but wise men, men of deep knowledge. And they come with gifts, to fall down before the child, and serve him.
But Matthew lives under oppression, and the immediate sponsor of that oppression is Herod; Herod who serves the occupiers, and like them fears any challenge to his power. Herod, who with all of Jerusalem is disturbed to hear the news of this birth. Disturbed precisely because the Psalmists words were true: this king will have the Lord’s justice, and will deliver the needy and the poor and those who cry. No wonder Herod and all Jerusalem are disturbed: the end of their time has been announced, and they have just heard of it. The time of their oppression is at an end.
And how is this revealed to him? By strangers coming to ask for information he doesn’t have, who bring the information with them that he needs and open his eyes to what the Scriptures say, but to which he hasn’t listened. And so he sends the Magi to Bethlehem, to find the child. And now the revelation of the Scripture, and the revelation of Creation, and the revelation of God, come all three together. An angel speaks directly to Joseph, and later to the Magi; the star that rises new in the heavens is the first clue for the Magi; and the Scripture that make sense of all of this for Matthew’s audience, reveal the last connections for the Magi between their curiosity, and their goal. Guided by their knowledge of nature, playing their part according to the psalm, they need scripture to complete the picture.
And the last song of Matthew is another snatch of scripture, this time from Jeremiah, from the heart of the Exile itself. Rachel weeps for the exile of the northern kingdom in Jeremiah, and Matthew cuts off the hope of recovery, the response of the Lord to “keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears,” for “they shall come back from the land of the enemy, ther eis hope for your future.” But does he leave that part of the poem, the song, the song of lament, out of his story of Messiah? Or does he incorporate it by reference, as he incorporates by reference to Psalm 72 the last line of that psalm: “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.” Ended? Why? Because they have been fulfilled. Because Messiah has come and the prayers of David son of Jesse have been fulfilled in the incarnation of the Christ who is also son of Abraham, son of David. And because the psalm itself portends, in Matthew’s gospel, and ending, almost an eschaton, a close to history. Because the psalm does not say what gifts the kings will bring from Sheba and Seba, but Matthew does: they bring gold, the precious element fit for a king, and frankincense and myrrh; strange perfumes for a child, but appropriate to prepare a corpse for burial. These gifts point already to the end, the crucifixion. We who are born mortal are born to die, and while this child is Messiah, this child is also mortal.
Just as the innocents slaughtered by Herod were mortal. But where Matthew cuts the story short with his quote from Jeremiah, he invites the rest of the story in tacitly, sotto voce, beneath the wailing of the mothers for their sons. He reminds them, reminds us all, that the terrible price of oppression, the terrible power of the oppressors, cannot be denied, cannot be overlooked or passed by easily: but neither is it the last word. That last word is God’s, and that word of hope will be heard in the gospel that follows this nativity story.
So then we jump to Luke, since we are following songs and scriptures and sources of revelation. Luke presents us with four songs, fitting for a Christmas story, and Luke’s is our favorite Christmas story: we fit the details of Matthew’s in around it, in our most common tellings. Our nativity scenes include shepherds and magi, a star and and angel, and always the iconic manger. Where Matthew implies concern for the poor and the powerless, Luke makes it concrete: Jesus is so poor and so powerless that even his birthplace is the result of oppression, of an order from the oppressor that his family go to their ancestral home. But here the oppressor, as ignorant as Herod of what God plans to do, has already done, will do in days to come, is made to play a necessary role in the story, is forced despite his intentions, to arrange the pieces so that God’s will is made clear to all who will see, to all who will listen.
But God’s will is obscure, even to the priests who serve God in the temple. Luke opens his story with Zechariah, a man of priestly line who should know his story of Abraham better, because although God made the promise to Abraham five times before it was fulfilled, but Abraham never doubted, and never asked for anything more than a sign once. Zechariah, on the other hand, wonders how the news of a child to be born to his wife Elizabeth is even possible. And for that he is silenced. Luke works in reverse to follow the story of the scriptures: God speaks first to a man, one who is to father the forerunner of Messiah, and then God speaks to the mother of Messiah. But where Zechariah is clumsy, Mary is subtle and wise in her humility.
And yet it is only after Elizabeth speaks to Mary that Mary sings her hymn of praise to God for what God has promised. It is only when her story is confirmed by her cousin, by another and older woman, that the younger woman rejoices in what God has done for her. And then she sings the most revolutionary song in the Gospels, one that echoes, but goes far beyond, the song of Hanna in 1 Samuel:
[1 Samuel 2:1-10]
And Hannah prayed, and said, My heart rejoiceth in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord: my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation.
2 There is none holy as the Lord: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God.
3 Talk no more so exceeding proudly; let not arrogancy come out of your mouth: for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength.
5 They that were full have hired out themselves for bread; and they that were hungry ceased: so that the barren hath born seven; and she that hath many children is waxed feeble.
6 The Lord killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up.
7 The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up.
8 He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and he hath set the world upon them.
9 He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail.
10 The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; out of heaven shall he thunder upon them: the Lord shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed.
My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has shown consideration for the lowly stature of his slave. As a consequence, from now on every generation will congratulate me; the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name, and his mercy will come to generation after generation of those who fear him. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Hannah sings of reversal, of strong men distraught, the weak made strong, the hungry fed while the full beg for a crust of bread, and childless mothers bear seven children while the mother of children languishes. Just so Mary sings of the reversal of oppression, but oppression of the people, not of the society. God will level; God will reverse. The valleys will be filled, and the mountains lowered, so that all will see the glory of God.
And as soon as Zechariah fulfills the word of the Lord as spoken by the angel, he can speak again, and he sings. We call that one the Benedictus, because the Latin version begins: “Benedictus Dominus, Deus Israel.” Mary’s song praises what God will do; Zechariah’s song praises what God has done. Together they tie up the strands of history, past and future, and make them one moving knot through the present, but all of time connected through that knot, through the moving present. Ironically, Zechariah’s song also does one more thing, in a way Luke never could have foreseen or intended. It ends with the one use of the word “epiphany” in all the Gospels.
The word means “revelation,” but it also means “light, illumination.” Epiphanai, sings Zechariah: Epiphanai tois en skotei kai skia thanatou kathamenois: light to those in darkness and in death’s shadow. Epiphanai: light, to show us the way. And so the Christmas stories connect again, through music.
There are two final songs in Luke, both short and simple: the gloria of the angels, a doxology, a praise to God and good news to humankind; and the nunc dimmitus, “now allow,” of Simeon, the song of the acceptance of death because history has been fulfilled, the expectation of Israel is over, the Exile is indeed now ended. One is the expected theophany of the birth of Messiah: Luke puts it in the mouths of heavenly messengers, but to draw shepherds, not magi, to witness the birth, because it is for them. And because the words “peace among those God favors” apply directly to the shepherds. It is for them this messiah has come. The reversal sung by Mary has already started. This news does not come first to the wise or the powerful, but to the outlaws, the shepherds, up late and with nothing else to do. As Mary sang, and Hanna before her, and the Psalmist, these are the ones favored by God, the poor and the oppressed to whom God listens. And again, their oppression is lifted, because they are the first invitees into the kingdom this new-born will grow up to proclaim.
So these songs set the themes of the gospel stories. The Psalm and the lament of Jeremiah set the framework of Matthew’s nativity, and set it inside the story of the revelation already told by the Jewish people to themselves, already recorded and revered in their scriptures. Luke, the Gentile, speaks to a Gentile community of ostensibly Jewish matters, so the witness of scripture is not as strong a pull on him. But he, too, needs scripture to anchor his story, to give it context. Scripture, and songs, because the truth is revealed in dreams, and sung in inspiration. The Benedidictus and the Magnificat bookend the kerygma of the kingdom, the proclamation of the change that is coming, a change that will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The Gloria is sung to those whom God favors, and it is not those we would expect; and the Nunc Dimmitus, much like Matthew’s gifts from the Magi, presents the eschaton, the end that awaits this family and this baby.
Unconnected with Matthew, still the stories are connected, and connected to the gospels they precede. They set the tone and themes for each gospel’s version of the story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth: a story of a peasant born under oppression; oppression both social and economic, and political. Each of those sources of oppression and repression are challenged in the nativity stories, and shown to be undone by God’s hand, by God’s action in history. Both encompass, from the beginning, outsiders, which means people like us, and people still not like us. So both stories offer us challenges, today.
And if there is a lesson for us today, it is that oppression and suppression take many forms, and many of them are imposed on us not just by governments, but by groups, by societies and communities. Matthew’s community was occupied by evil rulers; Luke’s community was dominated and defined by the Roman Empire. Like them, we are always struggling against what holds us, and always looking for liberation. But the question both these gospels present to us, from the very beginning of their stories, is: in what form does our liberation come, and is it what we are looking for? Are we always ready to recognize our epiphany?