While stuck in traffic due to highway constructions, I was reflecting on some of the Advent readings my wife and I have done for our morning devotions.
Isaiah 40 is one of the classic texts announcing the coming of Christ, and it is full of terrifying imagery.
“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:3-5 KJV)
The thought occurred to me that Isaiah is describing an earthquake. How else might the mountains and hills be made low, and the valleys exalted? We use bulldozers and steamrollers to make the rough places a plain, forcibly moving earth, conforming it to our will. This is what God is accomplishing in Christ.
Mary’s song echoes this sense of upheaval:
My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. (Book of Common Prayer, after Luke 1:46-55)
Old Simeon, too, senses the turmoil God is unleashing on the world. ‘And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”’ (Luke 2:34-35 ESV)
In still another Advent reading, John the Baptist describes the coming Messiah: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17 ESV, see also Matt. 3:11-13)
It seems strange that we can read these passages year after year, and completely miss the unsettling message. God is about to upset everything. We shall be forcibly reordered to comply with His will. Christ comes to save, to comfort, to heal, and to winnow. That we should be brought low for the glory of God never seems to make it to our Christmas messages. No wonder God intersperses these states with words of comfort, and the exhortation to be not afraid.
In olden times, Christmas celebrations captured something of this tumult. It was the time of year to remind the world of Christ’s second coming. The Twelve Days of Christmas were often marked by the rule of the Boy Bishop or the Lord of Misrule, as the last were made first, and the first last. After Epiphany, the old order reasserted itself, and life went on as it always has, but we were given this glimpse that something could be different, indeed, we were told that one day it would be different.
This sense of disruption carries into the very person of Christ. He is born King of the Jews, yet there all the power of the universe lay in that manger, helpless and small, soiled in His own excrement, unable to hold up even His own head. He existed as both God and Man in one indivisible person, an offense to the minds of Greek and Jew alike. He would, in the end, most greatly demonstrate his power by submitting to the power of others.
This is what He offers us. Are we willing to be upended? When Christ came, though much and long expected, most people missed Him entirely. Would I do likewise? We pride ourselves on our ability to know all about God, and how to recognize Him. But are we any different? He comes to upset the status quo, to shake the earth, and we do not wish ourselves to be shaken.
Christmas is perhaps the most realistic religious holiday of them all. If the story is told straight, Christmas posits that we inhabit a world filled with profound darkness and death. For all our yearning for hope and change, they elude us. But, there is grounds for and unlikely hope. God Himself has intervened to set the whole of Creation to rights. Christmas commingles joy and sorrow and invites nothing but trouble because it ends in a world without tears or night or temple, for the dwelling of God shall be with Man.
J.S. Bach concludes his Christmas Oratorio with a stirring chorale, “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen.” The music is triumphant with trumpets sounding and tympani’s thundering, echoing the words of victory and vengeance. As you listen closely, the tune is familiar, and entirely out of place. It’s the “Passion Chorale.” This is the point of Christmas. This is the foundation of our Hope. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. Amen.
Bach: Christmas Oratorio Finale