“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” Jesus told his disciples, twelve fresh recruits who on hearing that must have wondered what they were getting into. Jesus would later rebuke Peter for wielding a literal sword, and by that time the twelve must have had at least a hint of the deeper meaning behind Jesus’ words.
As I reviewed Luke’s familiar account this Christmas season, it struck me that the shadow of a sword hangs over Jesus’ birth as well. We tend to recall the story in cheerful tones, having heard its words recited singsong style by children decked out in their parents’ hemmed-up bathrobes, surrounded by friends waggling sheep tails and donkey ears. That first Christmas, however, menace filled the air. Of all people, mad King Herod best sensed the threat posed by Jesus’ arrival; he responded by slaughtering infants and forcing Jesus’ family into exile in Egypt.
Jesus’ cousin John seemed to recognize his famous relative in utero: “the baby in my womb leaped for joy,” Elizabeth told Mary when she learned of Mary’s pregnancy. “He will be a joy and delight to you,” an angel prophesied to her husband, Zechariah, about their son John—yes, and a worry too, for when the boy left home reports circulated about him eating bugs in the desert and taunting the royal family.
Ironies abound in Luke’s story. The angel Gabriel, indignant over Zechariah’s skepticism, rendered him temporarily mute and thus unable to vocalize the best news he’d ever heard. Joseph and Mary, far from home and robbed of the traditional serenade by neighbors on the birth of a son, instead got a choir of angels who heralded the news to lower-class shepherds. The baby himself began life on earth as he would end it, wrapped in binding cloths as if suggestive of the restraints he accepted in visiting this dark planet. God’s Son—“the bread of life” he would later call himself—spent his first night in a feeding trough slick with animal saliva.
While news of Elizabeth’s advanced-age pregnancy spread like gossip throughout the hill country of Judea, and her son John became a local hero for a time, poor Mary chose to slip out of town to avoid the rumor mill, and her son would be chased from town by a murderous crowd. “A sword will pierce your own soul too,” the old man Simeon had warned Mary, a statement she no doubt pondered during Jesus’ tumultuous time on earth.
A historian, Luke carefully dates the birth stories. “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah”: that simple conjunction foretells a plot line that will define much of human history, the uneasy relationship of church and state. Herod the Great sought to kill the baby Jesus. The monarch’s son, another Herod, would later behead Zechariah’s son John as a party trick and torment Jesus in a mocking trial. And after Jesus’ death Romans would persecute his followers, as would Mongols, Huns, Turks, Vikings, Russians, Chinese, Albanians, Arabs, Sudanese, Iranians, Iraqis, and a host of others.
Zechariah prayed for “salvation from our enemies,” a timeworn Jewish prayer that assuredly never got the answer he yearned for. Like so many who encountered Jesus, he expected a different kind of Messiah, one who would lead armies to triumph astride a stallion, not ride a donkey toward his arrest and crucifixion.
Of all the characters in Luke’s birth story, Mary seems to have the best grasp of the sword about to descend. Though often set to beautiful music, her Magnificat has a fierce and revolutionary tone, with proud rulers scattered and the rich sent away empty, even as the humble are exalted and the hungry filled. In a kind of counterpoint, Zechariah’s song ends with a plea that sets a lofty tone for the spread of the good news about Jesus: “the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Some theologians have likened Jesus’ advent to the D-day invasion, a beachhead in the cosmic war against evil, one that would rely on the improbable weapons of love and sacrifice. Jesus’ “sword,” the instrument of a new kingdom, brought division to family, neighborhood, and nation by disrupting the unjust order of planet earth. As the Misfit in one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories puts it, “Jesus thrown everything off balance.”
Looking back over two millennia of Christian history, I see much evidence of battles not yet won. At this very moment bombs are falling in Ukraine, the region of Jesus’ birth convulses, and the global church shows more division than unity. I find myself repeating Zechariah’s song of joy as an urgent prayer, wishing that Messiah’s visit would indeed be seen as a dawning of light and annunciation of peace.
The apostle Paul, who once wielded weapons against Jesus’ followers, later grasped the true nature of Jesus’ sword. As he told the Ephesians and Galatians, it works by destroying barriers, severing “the dividing wall of hostility” between God and humans, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. “For he himself is our peace,” Paul concludes. And we who follow Jesus are asked to bring that spirit of peace and reconciliation to a fractious, broken world.
The sky lit up the night of Jesus’ birth as angels announced, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” If only we humans could consistently live out those words that filled the air that Christmas day so long ago.
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