Episode: Episode 5: Christmas Eve


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Episode 5: Christmas Eve

In our fifth episode we deal with the Lectionary texts for Christmas Eve, Year A: Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20.

Show Notes:

The first thing to learn in this prophecy of Isaiah is that a child is born to you and is your child…. We must accentuate the word “us” and write it large. That is, when you hear, “A child has been born to us, make the two letters US as large as heaven and earth and say, “The child is born, it is true; but for whom is he born: Unto US, for US he is born, says the prophet.” Luther continues, “God allowed this child to be born for the sake of condemned and lost sinners. Therefore, hold out your hand, lay hold of it, and say, “True, I am godless and wicked, there is nothing good in me, nothing but sin, vice, depravity, death, devil, and hellfire; against all this, however, I set this child whom the Virgin Mary has in her lap and at her breast. For since he is born for me, that he might be my treasure, I accept this child and set him over against everything I do not have.” Luther concludes, “For what can the devil with all his evil tricks do to the Christian who lays hold on these words in all seriousness and firm faith? For though such a Christian be tempted by the devil, he can easily oppose him and say, 'Devil, are you listening? Do you know that a child has been born? Yes, indeed, do you know that he was born for us, that is, for me?' That’s when the devil has to back off.
-Martin Luther

Only Christ can make our inward heart fit to see God.
-St. John of Chrysostom

But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. […] I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it.” In other words, whenever you enjoy something, you have to praise it. See?

The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside … praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges … children, flowers, mountains … I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least.

The good critics found something to praise in many imperfect works; the bad ones continually narrowed the list of books we might be allowed to read. The healthy and unaffected man … could praise a very modest meal: the dyspeptic and the snob found fault with all.… praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.
-C.S. Lewis, Reflections On The Psalms

‘In those days,’ says Luke, ‘there went out a decree from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.’ These words have become so well known, through constant repetition in carol services, that we may perhaps be forgiven for not stopping to reflect on what Luke is trying to tell us, here and throughout his work. In one short paragraph (2:1–14) he moves from the great Emperor in Rome to the new King who was to rule the world. There is no question, for Luke, as to which one makes the angels sing. As we look at this story, which we know so well and yet so little, we may catch a glimpse of what we might mean when we say: Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory.
By the time Jesus was born, Augustus had already been monarch of all he surveyed for a quarter of a century. He was the King of kings, ruling a territory that stretched from Gibralter to Jerusalem, from Britain to the Black Sea. He had done what no-one had done for two hundred years before him had achieved: he had brought peace to the whole wider Roman world. Peace, I grant you, at a price: a price paid, in cash, by subjects in far-off lands, and, in less obvious ways, by those who mourned the old Republic. Power was now concentrated in the hands of one man, whose kingdom stretched from shore to shore. And, as Arnaldo Momigliano, one of the greatest of ancient historians, once put it, ‘[Augustus] gave peace, as long as it was consistent with the interests of the Empire and the myth of his own glory’. There you have it in a nutshell: the whole ambiguous structure of human empire, a kingdom of absolute power, bringing glory to the man at the top, and peace to those on whom his favour rested.

Yes, says Luke, and watch what happens now. This man, this king, this absolute monarch, lifts his little finger in Rome, and fifteen hundred miles away in an obscure province a young couple undertake a hazardous journey, resulting in the birth of a child in a little town that just happens to be the one mentioned in the ancient Hebrew prophecy about the coming of the Messiah. And it is at this birth that the angels sing of glory and peace. Which is the reality, and which the parody?
-N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer

...prayerful reflection, reading Old and New Testaments in the light of one another, filled this lacuna at a very early stage by pointing to Is 1: 3: “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.”

Peter Stuhlmacher points out that the Greek version of Hab 3: 2 may well have contributed here: “In the midst of two living creatures you will be recognized … when the time has come, you will appear” (cf. Die Geburt des Immanuel, p. 52). The two living creatures would appear to refer to the two cherubs on the mercy-seat of the Ark of the Covenant (cf. Ex 25: 18– 20), who both reveal and conceal the mysterious presence of God. So the manger has in some sense become the Ark of the Covenant, in which God is mysteriously hidden among men, and before which the time has come for “ox and ass”— humanity made up of Jews and Gentiles— to acknowledge God.

Through this remarkable combination of Is 1: 3, Hab 3: 2, Ex 25: 18– 20 and the manger, the two animals now appear as an image of a hitherto blind humanity which now, before the child, before God’s humble self-manifestation in the stable, has learned to recognize him, and in the lowliness of his birth receives the revelation that now teaches all people to see. Christian iconography adopted this motif at an early stage. No representation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass. After this brief digression, let us return to the text of the Gospel. “Mary gave birth to her first-born son,” we read in Lk 2: 7. What does this mean?
-Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives



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