NATIVITY OF OUR LORD – 2016 – THE OTHER SIDE OF DESPAIR
Luke 2: 18-20 “Good news of great joy for all the people.”
“Where does one go from a world of insanity?
Somewhere on the other side of despair.” T. S. Eliot: The Family Reunion
“When the flaming lute-thronged angelic door is wide; / When an immortal passion breathes in mortal clay; / Our hearts endure the scourge, thy plaited thorns, the way/ Crowded with bitter faces;/ The wound in palm and side/ The vinegar-heavy sponge, the flowers of Kedron stream;/ We will bend down and loosen our hair over you/ Then it may drop faint perfume, and be heavy with dew/ Lilies of death-pale hope, roses of passionate dream.” William Butler Yeats: The Travail of Passion.
In Philemon 24 Luke is mentioned among the co-workers of Paul. In II Timothy Luke is with Paul. In Col. 4:14 Luke is referred to as “the beloved physician.” It is believed that Luke is also the Lucius mentioned in Rom.16:21. In some non-biblical literature Luke is the abbreviated form of Lucius. His writings, the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, show that he is associated with Hellenistic Christians, that is, the Greek-speaking community. The fact that he traveled with Paul who is a missionary to the gentiles would indicate this also. Some people dispute that he was a physician, but that does not matter as regards his writing. He is not writing as a physician, but as a defender of the Christian faith.
Luke stated clearly his purpose in writing this Gospel in the first few verses. He intended to write an “orderly account,” which hardly implies a chronological account, specifically that Theophilus “may know the truth (certainty, not alethia) of the things of which you have been informed, (catechesis, oral teaching).” Luke’s purpose is clearly to present the certainty of catechesis, teaching the faith through word of mouth, meaning “the things which have been accomplished among us just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” (In Luke logos is Gospel, while in John logos is Christ the Revealer). By the time Luke is writing, the proclamation of the word had moved from word of mouth, oral tradition, to a written text. “Many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the event.” Luke 1:1. What Luke intends now is to offer certainty through apologetics. The gospel is entirely eschatological. Jesus is the bringer of the eschatological kingdom of God. The aim of Luke’s early Christian apologetics is not to present the certainty of fact, but the assurance of faith. This is what he promises Theophilus.
Luke 2:8-20 is his own creation. It is certain that he had before him the gospel of Mark and the Q Document. There were also oral traditions available to him. If indeed he was a co-worker with Paul, then he would know the content of the preaching of Paul, which is much older than any of the written gospels. Paul himself had received some of the earliest traditions of the Christian gospel. He said in I Cor. 15: 3-5, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve.” These verses indicate the earliest form of the gospel. It consisted entirely and solely of the passion of the Christ. Luke constructed his gospel around this kernel, adding what he learned from Mark and Q. Thus, the revelation of Jesus Christ is the revelation of his Passion. This is the center and core of the story of salvation. His passion is a theological dialectic of hope and despair which integrates what is mortal with what is eternal. The result is nothing less than a miracle: the human being, the mortal, consequent to the passion of Christ, is the synthesis of redemption.
In exploring the event of Luke 2:8-20, it will be necessary to investigate the vivid description much of which is no longer shared by 21st.century believers. The appearance of angels surrounded by the glory of God, for example, is not an ordinary event to which we are accustomed. Therefore we must examine this world-view as thoroughly as possible to uncover the meaning that it wants to communicate, not only then, but also now. Since childhood we have been delighted by these stories. But there are unanswered questions, and to this we must now turn.
Why was this announcement by the angel made to shepherds? There is no clear answer to this. The shepherds were living in their fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. This was not just their night job; it was their life. They lived in the fields. Abel, a shepherd, died in the fields in Genesis. Danger lurks there. The angel came to their home, where they lived, to make an announcement about someone who thought of himself as homeless, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” They were born and lived among their animals, just as Jesus was born among animals. In this way even his birth was hidden from the world, and who he is remains hidden to this day, and comes into view only through revelation. For the shepherds it must have started out as any other night. They keep watch. Those who keep watch are awake, alert, and vigilant. In order to protect themselves and their sheep they must guard against any and all danger. The night presents danger. What constitutes night is darkness. Darkness covers over, hides what is threatening. What it hides may appear at any moment, hence they must be always vigilant. Often during his ministry Jesus advised, watch and pray, for you know not the hour. It is precisely to the watchful that the angel appears.
Then the unexpected happened. Tonight, the terror was not hidden in darkness but in light! What strange paradoxes befall us. The angel of the Lord appeared in their midst, full of the light of the glory of God. To stand in the light of Christ must also be terrible, to be seen as and for what one is. It says, “they were terrified.” What is the terror that terrifies them? That the darkness was suddenly shattered by light must have certainly jolted them. However, I am trying to understand the terror that terrified them and this is not easy to uncover. There are many candidates: the light, the angel and the announcement. Often an angel is a disguise for the divine. Is it possible that what we have here is a theophany? This certainly seems to be the case. Before them is an “angel of the Lord.” Further, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” The glory of the Lord is that within which the Lord resides, as is said elsewhere, “he dwells in unapproachable light.” I Tim. 6:16. I believe that this is a glory that is reserved for the Lord himself. The passage goes on to say that there appeared also, “a multitude of heavenly host,” praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” I cannot believe that such a heavenly host accompanied an angel to deliver a message. I am convinced that this event is a theophany that the Lord himself has appeared to them. Compare the story of Hagar in Genesis 16: 7-13, where it is clear that the angel is none other than the Lord himself.
If it is, then to stand before the Lord is to stand in terror, because for the shepherds to look upon the face of the Lord is to die. What the surrounding light reveals to them is their mortality. The terror that they fear is the certainty of their death because they have gazed upon the face of the Lord. This would make sense, because the angel immediately says, “Do not be afraid.” 2:10. This is the third time that an angel has counseled this “do not fear” in the opening of Luke’s gospel: First, to Zechariah in 1:13, with the promise of a son; second, to Mary, in 1:30, also with the promise of a son, and now to the shepherds, with the announcement that her son has arrived. The angel encourages them, “See!” Behold! Open your eyes! That is, they can look upon the angel without the fear of dying. For the angel brings them life not death. This is the initial proclamation of the gospel. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” 2:11.
After the angel had departed, and while still in shock, the shepherds left their flocks and went to Bethlehem to find the child. Their action calls for further exploration. They did not simply leave their flocks. They put their flocks in danger by leaving them at the mercy of the darkness. Why would they do this? Let us remember they spent their entire life with their flocks. In leaving them behind the shepherds answered a call to go and find the child. When Christ calls, whether it is shepherds or fishermen or tax collectors or sinners, all immediately leave everything and follow him. The story of the shepherd who left ninety-nine of his sheep unattended to go in search of one which was lost is instructive. “Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead.” The angelic announcement of the good news of the gospel was a call to find the One who was born in the city of David, another shepherd of old. Others will seek him later also, wise men and kings, with different motives. The shepherds found the child, how many mangers they explored is not stated. But upon finding him, they testified to the truth of the message, and returned with praises and glory.
The story of the birth of Jesus Christ is still a challenge to our imagination and our intellect. The message is that he comes into our homes to confront us. He meets us where we are, and then demands that we abandon the ground upon which we stand and embrace him on his holy ground. He demands that we leave everything behind and follow him, and that means ultimately, that we leave our life behind in pursuit of the life he offers. To leave our life behind is nothing less than to die. We must face our own death, for that is what sin has placed before us and from which we avert our eyes. Our mortality binds us to a here and now that always remains a here and now. Our mortality is not something that we voluntarily confront. For the most part we are oblivious to it, unaware that our mortality is devouring us bit by bit. And then comes the announcement of a Savior! The good news is that this Savior has come to give us life, and to give it abundantly. Abundantly does not mean “a whole lot of life,” but rather eternal life, life that transcends the here and now that devours us. The Savior has come to confront the terror of our mortality with the promise of eternity. This is what it means to say that history has become eschatology. How may we understand this in the 21st. century?
Yeats “When an immortal passion breathes in mortal clay,” brings together two images whose essence is to confront and contradict each other. What is “immortal” is that which shall never endure anxiety in the face of death. “Mortal” is that which already and always lives within that anxiety and can never emerge from it. It is instructive that newer translations of the Bible use “mortal” instead of “man” as a way to achieve “inclusivity.” It certainly accomplishes that. It also retrieves from obscurity an image with which human beings are not at home: the mortal who is ever faced with the existential anxiety of death. “The immortal” which never has to face the existential crisis of death is not the same as “the eternal.” The eternal is that which shall not be comprehended by time. The Nativity of our Lord is that event in which the eternal has arrived to deliver the mortal from death. Yet, this deliverance does not grant the mortal immortality. For Yeats, what is immortal is a passion within the mortal, that leads us “to bend down and loosen our hair over you,” making reference to the Anointing at Bethany of Jesus Christ. Passion lies at the heart of devotion and worship, and for this reason there can be no mission where there is no passion. The passion of the Christ is the passion of the Church. This is evident from the beginning, from the initial announcement of the birth of the Savior. According to Luke 2:8-20, the shepherds to whom the revelation of Jesus Christ comes initially must immediately “go and see” in order that they may “go and tell.” Revelation grants passion, and passion bestows strength through grace to “go and tell.”
II Timothy 1:8-11 gives a good summary of the coming together of passion, mortality and eternity. The writer is “suffering for the gospel,” because he has been given a “holy calling” by God’s grace. “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” 9-11. In another place he writes, “It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion.” I Tim. 6:16. Earlier he had said, “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever.” I Tim. 1:17. Paul also calls attention to similar connections in Romans 1:23; 2:7; I Cor. 15:53-54. From the original announcement by the angel in Luke 2 to the later proclamation, the message has remained the same: it is “good news of great joy for all people.”
“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”