I am sure that every religious person, every believer in God, at some point wonders, “why doesn’t God just straighten everything out?” Why doesn’t the all-powerful and all-loving Creator of the universe simply deal with the injustice, suffering, violence, and sin that so bedevil his world? Well, we can hear precisely this cry in the prophets of ancient Israel. All of them—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Zechariah, etc.—utter some version of “How long, O Lord?”
One form that this expectation takes is a yearning that the God of Israel would come to reign as king, which is to say, as one who has the power and authority to right every wrong. The first reading that the Catholic Church proposes for Mass on Christmas morning is a passage from the 52nd chapter of the prophet Isaiah, and it speaks exactly in these terms: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one bringing good news, announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation, saying to Zion, ‘Your God is King!’” (Is 52:7). The prophet is envisioning the great day when Yahweh will take charge and set things right, when he will “bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations” (Is 52:10), that is to say, roll up his sleeve, asserting his dominance over his enemies.
The fundamental message of Christmas is that this prophecy has come true—but in the most unexpected way. In order to understand this, let us look first at the magnificent poem with which St. John opens his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:1,14). What is of supreme significance here is that Jesus of Nazareth is not simply one more in a long line of prophets, not one more wisdom figure, not just another religious hero; rather, he is what Isaiah and his prophetic colleagues longed for: God himself in the flesh, come to rule. We know that kingly authority is involved in this enfleshment of God, for St. John reminds us: “what came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:3-4). The evangelist is telling us that the Word has come to fight an enemy, and the enemy will not prevail.
If we turn from John to the familiar Christmas story as recounted by St. Luke, we will appreciate the unexpected part of this message. Who is this warrior, this divine champion come to right the wrongs of the world? He is a baby, born in a cave because there was no room for him even in the cheapest travelers hostels of Bethlehem; placed in a manger, the place where the animals eat; wrapped up in swaddling clothes, unable to move. What is the mighty arm of Yahweh, bared for all the nations to see? It is the naked arm of an infant child reaching forth from the manger. They were expecting a Davidic warrior, wielding the weapons of the world, establishing the supremacy of Israel through bloody conquest. They got a warrior all right, but one who would fight with the weapons of heaven, not of earth. How do we know, on Luke’s telling, that we are dealing with a warrior king? His birth is announced by an entire stratias (army) of angels, beings of immense power, subsisting at a higher pitch of existence (Lk 2:13). Caesar was able to dominate the world precisely because of his army. Luke is telling us that the baby king has a far more impressive host.
The Gospels can be read as the story of the divine/human king coming to reign. On the cross, he entered into close combat with the enemies of God, battling them through forgiveness and non-violence; and in the resurrection, he manifested his decisive victory. God’s love, we now can say with utter confidence, is more powerful than sin and death. But there is more to this odd story, and a glance back at St. John’s prologue will help us understand what this is. The evangelist says, “He was in the world and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him” (Jn 1:10). The third “world” that John uses refers to all that stands opposed to God’s intentions, the realm of sin. “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God…” (Jn 1:12). In one sense, Jesus the king finished the work, fought and won the battle. But at the same time, it is eminently clear that sin and death are still operative—and therefore, the King gives us the privilege of participating in his identity and mission.
Being a “child of God” is not so much a special status in which we exult, but rather, an empowerment to fight in the King’s army, to join him in the great struggle. Like our master, we enter into combat, but with the weapons of the spirit. If we turn to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we see exactly what this looks like: “Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil.…Therefore, put on the armor of God…clothed with righteousness as a breastplate…hold faith as a shield…and take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God” (Ep 6:10-17). How wonderful that St. Paul gives us a description of Christian mission that is, simultaneously, completely militant and completely non-violent!
So as Christmastide rolls around once again, let us rejoice in the coming of the Savior—but even as we rejoice, let us resolve to join the Lord, as happy warriors, in his great campaign.
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