Reading the Bible primarily as a pattern or blueprint for our life can lead to some dangerous theological misunderstandings and misinterpretations, not to mention that we may easily miss the beauty of Scripture itself. However, all the authors of the Bible certainly make use of distinct literary patterns. One of these patterns is the repetition of role reversals.
One of the most striking is God’s response to patriarchal systems in the ancient world. Although twins, the younger Jacob is God’s chosen recipient of promised blessings, and not the first-born Esau. It is through Jacob, renamed Israel, that God chooses to bless a nation, then the world. God demonstrates his wisdom and freedom in how he acts beyond human sensibilities. Later, Ephraim inherits a greater portion than the older Manasseh. The younger will serve the older. David is anointed as king before seven older brothers. The meek will inherit the earth. The humble are exalted. Not because God is contrary, fickle, or unjust, but because he is just.
God sees our tendencies toward abusive power and domination, and works to correct them and undo them. He accomplishes this in ways that, if we have eyes to see, command our astonishment.
From the first pages of Scripture, however, we read of the “second-born” Eve being extracted from the side of Adam, the first created in the image of God. In this version of the created order,* if we follow this biblical pattern, we might expect Eve to become the chosen of God, while Adam serves. But, no, they are co-workers, tending the garden, friends with God. This justice and solidarity in all relationships is what God is patiently working out in us.
During Advent, as we contemplate the Christ’s arrival, we wait with Mary and Joseph. What is striking about Gabriel’s visitation is that Mary, not Joseph, receives a vocation. Certainly Mary’s humility and willingness to trust YHWH is the avenue through which Jesus is born.
But Matthew clarifies Isaiah’s ambiguous noun, “a virgin shall give birth” (Matthew 1:23, Isaiah 7:14). Of all the ridiculous things! This is God’s work, not from human passion or decision, and unequivocally not a man’s decision.
“Here am I. Send me,” says Isaiah.
“Here am I. Let it be,” says Mary.
The Spirit overshadows Mary, and without the presence or participation of any man, she gives birth to God-with-us. Mary birthed the Savior of the world without male initiative.
In the events leading up to the first Christmas, men are secondary, sometimes quiet, submissive, silently obedient. Joseph wordlessly submits to God in a dream. Sometimes, they have been stripped of their voice, like Zechariah, who must learn from the Lord how to be silent and let others speak.
Eve, the mother of all, and Elizabeth, the mother of the Advent forerunner John the Baptist, choose their words carefully. “Look what the Lord has done. With God’s help we have produced a son!” While the Spirit’s same work has removed Elizabeth’s disgrace of barrenness, Mary’s disrepute blooms from her supernatural fertility. The women believe, trust, and are given a prophetic voice. Mary and Elizabeth laugh, open their mouths in astonishment, and join in communal dissent. They call out oppressive regimes and decry injustice against the poor with proleptic boldness.
And so, from the beginning of the Christmas story, we see the pattern of God’s role reversals in the calling of Mary and Joseph. It is Mary who carries God into embodied flesh. It is a woman, no, a young woman, barely more than a girl who, with God’s help, produces the salvation of us all.
And so, from the very beginning, the kingdom of God takes us by surprise, turning things upside down, inverting our understanding of who and what this season of Advent and Christmastide are all about.
Behold, the kingdom of God is upon us. (Luke 17:21)
*Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 offer parallel accounts with slightly different chronologies and emphases. The first, man and woman seem to be created simultaneously. The second, woman is pulled from man’s ribs as he sleeps.
Epiphany is over. Eastern Orthodox Christmas was yesterday. And now, even peace and goodwill to humanity seem quaint memories, long abandoned. After the violence and political unrest over the last couple of days, I have decided to post an entry from my recently published Advent journal in its entirety. I need to refocus my heart to see Jesus more clearly. From Immanuel:When God Was One of Us, what follows is December 15, “The Incarnation in Suffering.” Be kind and gentle with all you meet. The Lord is near.
There is irony in Luke’s account of the angels’ visitation to the shepherds with their choral message of peace and good news. When the divine touched down on earth to save it, there was no immediate eradication of sin, violence or injustice. Instead, they seemed to be exacerbated. The darkness did not understand this peasant girl’s “bastard,” new-born son was the eternal light, the light of the world, for the world.
There is a grave irony in this child entering the world of the Pax Romana. The great Roman peace would eventually be unwilling to protect him, and would be culpable for his execution. Even shortly before his birth, Rome could not maintain the peace of its citizens in the outlying Jewish districts.
The birth of Jesus gripped King Herod the Great with fear. Here, in this helpless baby from Galilean parents, was a threat like no other he had experienced in his political career. The prophecies, though intangible, heightened his paranoia. Having already done away with his wife and numerous other family members, Herod met his problems head on.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted,
because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)
Why would God introduce his Son into the world in such a way? Why should there be the slaughter of innocents succeeding glad tidings of peace to all humanity? A mother who watched as her toddler is impaled, and flung to the side, would have a difficult time hearing the angelic herald:
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among
those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)
Still, today, the world reels with the pain and confusion of suffering and injustice. It is often the innocent who suffer. As we suffer, or watch others suffer, we question why God doesn’t intervene. We doubt his love, his justice, or his ability to protect us from the evil of the imperfect world in which we are trapped. This isn’t the first time in the text that other innocents have perished for the sake of the deliverer. As the Israelites cried out to Jehovah for salvation from the Egyptian bondage, God answers their cries. However, he answers them much later, four hundred years later than they expected, and not before hundreds of enslaved baby boys were left exposed to die, or be impaled, strangled, or dumped into the Nile River. With the death of Christ, the One died for the many. At the birth of Moses and Jesus, however, many died for the one.
It is like this today. Empires, and powers-that-be, will always engage in acts of self-preserving violence. At some point, the government or empire that God has ordained, will step out to be a god itself. Invariably, if questioned, power will react with oppression or violence. Empire claims God until God is the enemy. When power is threatened, ego lashes out in ugly ways. Public service lasts only until God himself is perceived as the threatening enemy. Empire acts from self-preservation, fear and bondage to absolute power. God always acts out of freedom and with love. It is not God who slaughters for the sake of his messenger, but empire.
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…. (Matthew 2:3)
Can we, in the twenty-first century, imagine in the United States of America or in other powerful, democratic Western nations, a tyrant’s paranoia and fear infecting an entire city? Would an entire nation of people succumb to fear and bigotry simply at the prospect of someone or something destroying their way of life, their global prestige? Nations and empires have always been in the business of excluding others, frequently through dishonorable, or even violent, means. Yet God is determined to include us all: Magi and Jewish scholars, small town peasants and turncoat peddlers, sixth generation church members and struggling immigrants barely getting by.
The good news for us today, whether we are in the United States or modern-day Egypt, France or Uzbekistan, is that we do not have to make sense of fragile but powerful egos, nor monolithic political systems and religions. Matthew’s gospel tells us that some misguided but gentle wise men came from the East to meet a new king. Some historians believe them to be of the early monotheistic Zoroastrians. The crazed Herod, part Jewish, part Gentile sell-out to the Roman empire, offered little moral guidance. There is no proof which indicates the “right” religions are based on superior morality alone. If morality was the world’s salvation, we could all pick our favorite moral system, and the world could certainly be a better place. Only God is good, however. No, Jesus did not invade legal systems and political regimes in order to make us moral. He came to obliterate death and to elongate the bridge over sin and to unite us back with God.
So, there is no violence that will end our suffering. There is no oppression which will broker peace. We might be able to bandy about terms like “peace keepers,” “preemptive strikes,” “casualties of war,” or worse, “collateral damage,” in order to desensitize ourselves to the fact that we are bowing down to the idol of stability and empire. We might say the ends don’t always justify the means. Novelist Min Jin Lee, rather, says sins can’t be “laundered by good results.” Dirty is dirty, and our world of empire with some God poured on top has grown filthy.
Matthew’s gospel, in contrast to Luke’s, shows us the uncomfortable side of Christmas. After we wait through Advent, we are shocked when it isn’t all sweet and joyful. Much of Advent deals in oppression and injustice, and even death. For when the divine intersects with a hurting, blinded world, there will always be adverse reactions. Let us live, then, sighted, for a different world.
Christ came as Immanuel to embrace humanity. He came to be like us, so that God could re-create us like him. Christ did not come to topple tyrants and dictators. We are still left to live in the midst of them—for now. Rather, he came to walk about with us, work in our cubicle, be treated unjustly and to demonstrate acceptance in unforgiving, unaccepting regimes that insist on maintaining a firm grip on their power. Jesus came to demonstrate love, and to reveal the truth of his eternally established kingdom.
The story of Jesus’ birth goes from bad to worse, but Immanuel did not intersect the divine with the human for such shadowy reasons. Jesus meets us at the worst of times and ushers in a new way of being and a new way of waiting. Instead, Matthew insists that this is God’s story, and that regardless of how it appears now, he is the One for whom we are waiting. It is his Advent that gathers us about the evening candles, and they are his promises we cling to when the world seems overcome with the brutality and fear of empire.
Just and righteous God,
Although our empires cry out for violence, we long to live in the goodness of your peace. Instead of lashing out in fear, grant us patience that your righteousness will prevail. Grant us tolerance and compassion in this time of suspicion and intolerance. We pray for the Magi around us that you will protect their journey and that you will work through us to be channels of Christmas grace and peace for those who seek you. Give us courage to stand against imperial power, knowing that all truth is your truth, and all power belongs to you, oh good God!