Welcome to the third installment of the Girardian Virtual Bible Study. This week, Lindsey and Adam wish you a Merry Christmas as they celebrate the birth of Jesus foretold in Isaiah 9:2-7 and recounted in Luke 2: 1-20.
You can join Lindsey and Adam on the live Bible Study with your comments and questions on the Raven Foundation Facebook page every Wednesday morning at 10:00 am Central, 8:00 am Pacific. If you can’t make the live show, you can watch the recording or listen to the MP3 the following day here on the Raven Review. For more on the work of René Girard and the Bible, we highly recommend Paul Nuechterlein’s website Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.
Ready or not, here he comes! (Jesus, that is!)
Christmas is swiftly approaching, and while for many of us that means a frantic rush to buy and send gifts and decorate our homes, it also means that the arrival of the Fully Human One who will upend our lives and priorities is imminent! This is something for which we can never fully prepare, and yet a joy to celebrate and a blessing to treasure! Isn’t this just like the birth of any child: one tiny person reorients our lives forever. This is how God comes to us.
In a world of chaos and violence and war, God comes to us not as an all-powerful king or supernatural warrior, but as a humble baby.
Isaiah’s Hope in the Darkness
Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, as the Assyrian Empire was overtaking the world through violent conquest, the prophet Isaiah spoke words of hope: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwell in deep darkness – on them has light shined!”
That deep darkness that has shrouded the world from the foundation of human culture is violence. We are still making our way out of this violence – out of this darkness – as our eyes adjust to the light. The light has been shining for 2000 years. Actually, if we go from Isaiah’s proclamation, we can say 2700 years. And, actually, the true light that enlightens everyone was in the world from the beginning, and the darkness has never overcome it, but we knew it not. So the light became flesh and dwelt among us.
The boots and bloodied garments of war shall be burned as fuel for the fire. The yoke of burden and the rod of the oppressor shall be broken. One who will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Might God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” shall come among us. And that One will be…
A tiny, helpless baby.
How can peace come if not through superior strength? When the Assyrian army, or the Roman army, or other empires throughout history raid the world, absorbing lands and peoples with the sword and the gun and the bomb, how are they stopped if not with superior force? Doesn’t the burning of boots and garments imply a military conquest? Isn’t the only peace “peace through strength”?
Not according to Isaiah, or to Jesus.
We look to the powerful – we look to our own violence – to protect ourselves. But the burning boots and garments are no longer on the bodies of soldiers. The vehicles and armaments of battle, the trapping and wrappings of war that package them and make them acceptable to us, will be burned away. Not only for our enemies, but for us as well. Our boots. Our garments. Our hope will be realized when we put it not in war, but in uplifting the poor and marginalized.
The poor and marginalized are the first to be trampled by war. Resources that pour into our war machines are, as Eisenhower said, a theft from those who are hungry and go without food, those who are naked and go without shelter and clothing. The poor are sent to the front lines to die, and the resources of the people that are taken for war leave those with the most need deprived of the essentials they need for survival. Not only does violence beget violence, but even our own violence destroys not only our souls, but also our bodies. There is a physical, visceral cost to war paid especially by the poor.
And yet we continue to put our faith in violence. We continue to walk in darkness.
Our peace will come not when we seek to gain it over and against others, but when we find it in communion with the whole human family. And the time of that peace will be ushered in not with military fanfare and glory, but with a subversion of our expectations. What more starkly contrasts with our notions of “might makes right” than salvation coming through the birth of a helpless child?
Luke Finds Real Power in Vulnerability
Luke sets the scene of this birth with a misdirect, another subversion of our expectations. He notes the reign of Emperor Augustus and the governorship of Quirinius only to then shift the spotlight and shine it on a dark corner of a conquered, occupied land. A poor couple cannot even find room in the inn, and they lay their newborn son in a manger, a dirty place where the animals eat, because there is nowhere else to put him.
We would know nothing about this birth if not for the life and death and resurrection of this truly human one, born in such poverty and obscurity. We look back on Jesus’s birth through the light of Easter. But because that light of Easter shines on the one who was pushed out of the world by our violence in order to expose and transform it, we can now see how that light shines on all of people born in the dark corners of the world. In “the least of these,” we find our salvation.
And how else could it be? What compels love from us more sweetly and completely than a newborn child? What overpowers us more fully than the utter joy of caring for one who is helpless? What else so beautifully upends our lives and changes our hearts?
Caring for a child ushers love from us, ushers us to give in ways we have never known. So in coming to us as a baby, God stirs the love in our hearts in ways the mighty and powerful never can.
Jesus The Child; Jesus Our Mother
But God does not only come to us as a baby. God delivers us from our ways of violence and death into life. Jesus is not only an infant for us to adore; he becomes our true Mother. His birth lights a fire in our hearts, his life is a pregnancy in which we grow and change in the womb of the world he is transforming, and his death and resurrection together are our deliverance into the light. Giving birth, ushering forth new life, is beautiful – and messy, and scary, and dangerous. Jesus, our true Mother, ushers us forth into new life on the cross. The blood that pours from mothers upon the birth of their children poured forth from Jesus in our birth. The life-cycle of all humanity, from birth to death to new life, is bound up in Jesus.
As Jesus’ life begins on the margins, he draws others to himself from the margins. The first to know of his birth are shepherds. We have an idyllic, pastoral image of shepherds that comes from the association with Jesus’ birth, but shepherds in the first century were marginalized, making their living not among other people but outside with the animals. They were tough – their job was to beat away wolves! – but they were not particularly welcome among others. Some may have been criminals. And when the host – the army – of angels appeared to them, these tough men on the fringes of society were terrified.
If everyone else had pushed you away, if you were known as a criminal and your life was not valued by others, would the sight of God’s “army,” a throng of God’s messengers, comfort you? I think the shepherds thought their time was up when they saw the angels. Because if God is associated with power, and the powers of the world have pushed you aside, then that is what you would also expect from God. They had not yet learned that God cares for those pushed aside and rejected. But they were the first to receive that message, the first to learn that God cares for them. They, after Mary and Joseph, are the first to see the truest power of God not in might but in vulnerability.
A Whole New World; A Whole New Life
Mary and Joseph welcome the shepherds to Jesus’s side. As God is born into the world, the immediate effects are that the marginalized are welcomed – quite literally – as the holy family welcomes the shepherds near. The shepherds, in turn, are finally able to see themselves as children of God by seeing God as a child. And they are able to deliver the news of this vulnerable God who welcomes the marginalize to a world that had marginalized them. In the most subversive way possible, the directive to us to reject our fear of others and to welcome the marginalized is not only given to a world in need of this message, but lived out from the very start.
At Christmas, when we are able to see God as a child, we finally see God as God sees us. And that’s the beginning of a whole new life not dictated by violence or bound by death, but free, abundant, and everlasting.
Our Savior is born! O come let us adore him!