For those who want a change from the Gospel
Christmas Day – Isaiah 9:2-7
In the mediaeval Church, Christmas was celebrated as a time for turning everything upside down. In 12th century France there was one day when the sub-deacons, the lowest of the low in terms of church orders, were allowed to lead services, thus subverting for one day at least the deeply hierarchical structures of the Church. Apparently one bishop was less than keen on this idea, but grudgingly allowed the practice to continue, as long as the sub-deacons did not sing the Magnificat more than five times: their enjoyment of the mighty being cast down from their thrones appeared to need some curtailing. In England the tradition of the boy-bishop became popular: on St Nicholas’ Day (Dec 6th) a small choirboy was enthroned as the bishop until Holy Innocents’ Day (Dec 28th). He took up his place as the bishop stepped down from his throne during the words from the Magnificat above (there is no record of the boy being despatched on Holy Innocents’ Day, I’m glad to say). These quaint practices persist in some places, but the truth behind them is a profound piece of teaching for the Church at Christmas time.
It is this reversal, this turning upside down of the established order, which Isaiah presents to us in his oracle from chapter 9. It is a message of salvation for the nation, hemmed in by enemies greedy for their fertile land, and living with the darkness of uncertainty and insecurity. But then God shows up, and the sun comes out and burns off the fog, the breeze clears the smoke from the funeral pyres, and they can see clearly again. New fires are lit, as the enemies’ weapons and uniforms are burnt, and anything worth looting is divided among the victors. The people are thrilled, both at the peace which has been won for them, and the loot they’ve managed to nick. It’s a time of unrestrained joy. This is the picture which the prophet is painting for us, a celebration of the warrior God who has turned up to fight for them. But then suddenly and abruptly the picture changes. We’re no longer on the battlefield: now we’re in the maternity ward, greeting a newly born baby. What on earth is a baby doing in the middle of a battlefield?
In line with the hermeneutical ethos of this blog, I have to tell you that the passage may not have referred to a literal birth in its original context, but rather the accession of a new king. In ancient Egypt an enthronement was often referred to in these terms, and the new king would have been given ‘throne names’ such as those in v.6. One scholar suggested a missing fifth title, ‘Eternal Judge’, based on the evidence from Egypt. The titles are significant: ‘Wonderful Counsellor’ suggests the wisdom to rule well; ‘Mighty God’ is better translated ‘Divine Warrior’ and speaks of prowess in battle, with God’s help; ‘Everlasting Father’ is about the pastoral care given to the people under his rule, and ‘Prince of Peace’ suggests the ability to reign in a way which promotes peace, harmony and well-being among his subjects. Scholars have argued about whether this prophecy is about Josiah or Hezekiah, both of whom were positive rulers over Israel, but neither of whom completely lived up to expectations, leading to the enduring hope from this passage of a future Davidic king, whose reign really would last for ever. But however we interpret it, the passage, and the season of Christmas, remind us that this eternal victory will not be achieved through the belligerent might of warriors, but through the birth of a new baby and the crowning of a new king.
Today we gather round the manger to welcome the one we know to be that king, and we are reminded, in a proud, posturing and conflict-filled world, that the way of peace will never be discovered through self-aggrandisement and bloodshed, but rather through the holy zeal of the Lord Almighty, the Prince of Peace. May you know his peace in our troubled world this Christmas-time, and may we all hear once again his call to lives of humility and hope, until that time when his zeal will accomplish all that has been promised. May you become more than a conqueror: a peacemaker.
I’ll be taking a week off from blogging and podcasting, and this blog and my ‘Wilderness Years’ podcast will be back in January. Happy New Year, dear readers!