Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Adam McCoy, OHCRCL - Christmas Midnight Mass - Wed 24 December, 2008
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
This is the first Christmas since 1992 that I have not overseen a Christmas pageant as a parish priest. The young participants in Christmas pageants always range from the enthusiastic, who want their parts, who look forward to them, who learn their lines and where to stand and what to do, to those who are basically conscripted, by domestic forces one does not oneself wish to witness, and whose dramatic presence is no less interesting to the observer for being coerced. There is nothing quite as wonderful as watching a sullen nine year old shepherd torn between the desire to look as bored as possible or actually break loose and shock, and the desire to reach home in one piece. Bless them all.
But since this is my first all-adult Christmas in 17 years, please indulge me a bit. I love retelling the story of the manger and the shepherds and the angels and the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes – so much nicer-sounding than bands of20cloth! But tonight I want to tell a story about another first Christmas – the first time Luke’s story was told openly, when it was first published, so to speak. Because that proclamation was a ticking time bomb to the ancient world. Luke’s Gospel is the promise of the real hope of glory and peace. Luke’s Gospel is about power, about ultimacy: what is real, what matters, what the world is about and what the world is for. It is about and for the love of God. It is not about and for politicians, governments, empires, and what the world calls great.
Luke’s gospel was probably published sometime in the mid-70s to the late 80's of the first century of the common era, for a Christian public who would appreciate his mastery of the Greek language. They seem to have been fairly sophisticated people, who knew pretty much what was what. This Gospel was a public proclamation of a new Glory and a new Peace, to proceed from the real ruler of the world, the real Son of the Divine, who was not in any respect like the power that ruled the political world. It is a sophisticated theology of God’s power in an imperial world. It is also a great work of art, clothing a profoundly transforming message in an unforgettable story that everyone who hears it immediately understands at its deepest level.
The Christian gospel was a new gospel, because there was another, secular=2 0and official gospel promulgated by the Roman government. That gospel proclaimed that the Divine Order had bestowed its favor on the imperial regime, which had brought peace and stability and prosperity to the parts of the world fortunate enough to be under its control. And the proper response to that favor was to praise and give glory to the emperor and all he stood for.
Luke starts his story of Jesus’ birth by placing it firmly in the imperial realm. With a reference to the rule of Caesar Augustus, and a display of dignitaries and titles that establish a governmental aura to the story, he makes the connection to the world of imperial authority clear. With the mention of Augustus, the first emperor, most hearers of that era would bring to mind the name of the present emperor, and then perhaps reflect on the ups and downs of imperial rule since its establishment a century or more before. They might reflect that the glory of the imperial state was a peace bought at a staggeringly high price by brutality and cunning in equal parts by Augustus and maintained by his successors, the decent emperors, Tiberius (mostly) and Claudius, and the mad emperors, Caligula and Nero. Their dynasty collapsed amid the confusion of the years 68-69, when four emperors reigned after Nero was driven from Rome.
The current ruling family of the 70's and 80's and 90's, contemporary with Luke’s Gospel, was a family whose name w as Flavius. The Flavians were brought to the throne by their successful prosecution of the war against the Jews. Their victory in Judea was the single most traumatic event in Jewish history until the Holocaust: The conquest of Jerusalem and the capture and destruction of the Temple ended forever the immemorial sacrificial worship offered by Israel to God. The Flavian steps to the throne were through pools of Jewish blood. The imperial regime of Vespasian and his sons had devastated both ancient Judaism and incipient Christianity.
There were three of these Flavian emperors. Vespasian was by all accounts a great general, a competent emperor, and a good old boy from the country with a mind like a steel trap, like so many successful despots. He was succeeded by his two sons, Titus, whom many thought gracious and who died too soon, and the paranoid Domitian, whose madness and cruelty the historian Suetonius tells us was such that “At the beginning of his reign, he used to retire into a secret place for one hour every day, and there do nothing else but catch flies, and stick them through the body with a sharp pin.” Before long it would not just be flies. He covered the walls and floors of his palace with marble polished like mirrors so he could see if someone was trying to kill him. He liked to start his letters with the salutation, “Our lord and god commands so and so.”
If y ou ever saw the emperor, you would shout Doxa! Glory! You would publicly praise the peace that his family had brought, even if that peace was bought at the price of the disappearance of your nation, your family, and your hopes. But not everyone was convinced. I can just hear the desolated Jews and Christians, still mourning the loss of the Temple, muttering to themselves when out of earshot, as yet another imperial rescript is read, the first century equivalent of “Some lord. Some god.”
But Luke’s account of power is entirely different. The angel’s proclamation is Glory and Peace. Not glory to emperors, but to the one who makes, and unmakes, emperors. And the angel makes this announcement not to the rich and powerful who are called to witness the imperial presence, but to shepherds, the lowest class of workers, those who really can’t find much else to do but look after the animals.
Mark’s Gospel uses the word for peace, eirene, only once. Matthew uses it four times. But Luke uses it fourteen times. Peace is a major theme for Luke. The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the restoration of peace, of shalom, not just to Israel, but, in the unfathomable generosity of God, to the whole world, including the Romans and their unspeakable emperors.
Luke’s gospel is a refutation of the theology of the world=2 0of imperial power. The babe whom Mary has brought forth is obscure, by the usual standards illegitimate, poor if not destitute, humble. How many like him have been born, lived and died, only to be forgotten, even after a generation or two by their own families. He is Everychild.
But it is this seemingly ordinary child who is to be the one who bears the real glory. It is from this obscure and humble baby that the real peace is to proceed. It is he, not an emperor or even a family of emperors, who will really transform the world. His peace will come not at the price of tens and hundreds of thousands of deaths and who knows how much desecration and treachery, but at the cost of his own life alone, into whose hands in an hour one morning the imperial regime will pound nails and whose side it will pierce with a lance. His life is the gift freely offered for real peace.
This is real glory. This is real peace. Not the propaganda of a political regime dabbling in its own divinization, but the real thing.
Luke offered then and he offers us now the real hope of Christmas. I think those who heard Luke’s Christmas story for the first time would have opened their eyes in joy. I think they would have understood Mary’s prophetic role. I think they would have understood Joseph’s heroic and necessary nurture of this new and fragile li fe, even at the risk of his own honor as a husband and as a man. I think they would have understood why God chose the outcasts of the working world to be the human audience for the great inbreaking event of the transformation of the world. I think they would have understood why it was in a stable and not in a palace, why it happened on the road to people trying honestly to obey some incomprehensible bureaucratic regulation, as all ordinary people have to do. Most of all I think they would have understood who this story was aimed at, and why.
How wonderful that God, who made the world from nothing, can bring to nothing the pretensions of an empire. How wonderful that this baby, who seems at first to be nothing, can be the beginning of the real Peace, the real Glory.