Through the glitter and frenetic rush of this season, not only are we missing the person we celebrate, we also are missing the portentous meaning of God’s coming to earth.
After 400 years of God’s silence, when no prophet had arisen to speak forth his word, John the Baptist emerged from out of the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord” as Isaiah had prophesied centuries ago. His messaging revolved round the need for repentance, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3.1-3).
Israel for so long had looked forward to the coming Messiah, the Son of David who shall restore his decayed dynasty and save his people from the bootheels of Rome and all other powers that have oppressed them. But, except for a faithful remnant, the people had forgotten the promise that there would come a time when a bright star of a man shall come and deliver them from all that oppressed them.
The times were dangerous and inauspicious.
The Jews were ruled by Herod the Great, an Idumean who usurped the throne from the line of the Macabees, who revolted against the Syrian Antiochus IV, who desecrated the Temple. The Maccabees won a brief period of independence, but once under Rome the Jews were ruled by a succession of proxy kings like Herod. To curry favor with both the people and Rome, Herod embarked on “build, build“ projects, like aqueducts and the rebuilding of the Temple, restoring it to its former glory. In his paranoid defense of his uncertain claim to the throne, he executed many possible claimants, including three of his sons and his favorite wife.
The religious establishment was no better. “You brood of vipers!” was John the Baptist’s description of the Pharisees and Sadduccees, who also wanted the benefit of baptism, a rite that signaled cleansing from one’s sins. But John would have none of people who superficially masked their rot with such religious rituals. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Elsewhere in Luke’s account, “bearing fruit that befits repentance” means “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors are to “collect no more than you are authorized to do,” and those in power like soldiers are not to extort money from anyone “by threats or by false accusations,” and, John adds, “be content with your wages” (Luke 3.10-14). True repentance has social consequences.
Corruption was rife in Israel, and leader and people alike apparently felt a kind of immunity from the awful judgment to come because of their ethnic identity: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children from Abraham” (Matthew 3.9).
Israel by this time had appropriated their peoplehood, not as an identity marker of what God’s people must be like, but as a moral privilege: they saw humanity as divided into “Jews and the rest.” This is much like those of us who count ourselves as heirs and within the borders of the old “Christendom.” We see those beyond the pale of our religious tradition as people who sit in darkness.
But Matthew’s account tells us that Jesus’ birthing was significant, not just for the Jews, but for those who were afar off. As had been prophesied, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9.2). It was given to the three wise men – “magi,” as the Greek word described them, denoting a class of astrologers who studied planetary movements – to discern that the entire cosmos had aligned for the birthing of the universal king, as signaled by a star. They trudged through the desert and braved the sharp winds to search for the one king worth worshiping: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2.2).
It is quite an irony that those in the peripheries – the magi from the East and the lowly shepherds – were the first to know and worship the Messiah that had come. Herod and his officials, even the theologians at court, could only locate his geography. His birth was to them troubling, a thing that upset the social arrangements they had gotten used to. So Herod, fiercely fighting for his hold on the throne, sent the troops to kill all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and under. There was great lamentation and weeping among the mothers of the children who were murdered that time.
We call this event Niños Inocentes, but we seem to gloss over the meaning of it. In the same way that when the true king came, the threatened Herod ruthlessly fought back, the followers of Jesus in this day and age will experience a backlash. It is a shadow that will haunt and hunt those who seek to do good against all odds.
We certainly rejoice that there is a new world that Jesus inaugurated 2,000 years ago. His kingdom of justice and righteousness is now operative in our history, even if below the radar screen and wears the face of weakness. But forces of evil refuse to take this lying down. They want us to believe that this gospel is a fairy tale, that a savior is yet to come, a fake messiah who rules and imposes order by getting everyone to toe the line with an iron fist.
As with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, there are those who go publicly professing conversion. The past four decades have seen tremendous church growth. The Pew Global Survey has reported that at least 44% of the population profess to be “born again” Protestants or “renewed Catholics.” Usually, revival or renewal movements, as with the 18th century Methodist Awakening in Britain, have as one of their many outcomes social reform. We have yet to see all our religiosity translate itself into justice in society.
These days, even so-called Christian politicians choose to surrender the good and embrace expediency, preferring the usual arrangements of political realities. But then Jesus warns that he will come again, and there will be a final judgment and a separation between the true sheep and the goats. The “end times” is to be welcomed because it is an imminent threat to evil. It is not, as some think, because the world is a sinking ship and we can jump from it by securing a ticket to heaven. Since the Messiah came 2,000 years ago, God has begun his grand project of remaking the earth, and we are told that it is this recreated earth that the meek among us shall inherit. – Rappler.com
Melba Padilla Maggay is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.
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