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, all twelve must have had at least a hint of the broader scope of Jesus' words.
Jesus' »sword«—the disruption his presence inevitably creates—has split families, neighborhoods, and nations. As the Misfit in one of Flannery O'Connor's stories puts it, »Jesus thrown everything off balance.«
As I recently read the first two chapters of Luke, it struck me that the shadow of a sword hangs over Jesus' birth as well. We tend to recall the story in cheerful tones, but when Christ was born, menace filled the air.
»He will be a joy and delight to you,« an angel prophesied to Zechariah about his son John. Yes, and a worry and a grief too, as reports filtered in of him eating bugs in the desert and incurring the wrath of Herod. As for John, he seemed to recognize his more famous cousin in utero: »The baby in my womb leaped for joy,« Elizabeth told Mary when she learned of Mary's pregnancy. (Flash forward 30 years, though, when John would send a haunting question from prison: »Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?« John would feel the sword at its sharpest.)
I love the ironies embedded in Luke's Christmas story. While news of Elizabeth's pregnancy spread like gossip throughout the hill country of Judea, and her son John became a local hero for a time, poor Mary had to slip out of town to avoid the ugly accusations, and her son would be chased from the neighborhood by a murderous crowd. »A sword will pierce your own soul too,« the old man Simeon warned Mary, a statement she no doubt pondered during her boy's tumultuous time on earth.
The angel Gabriel, indignant over Zechariah's lack of faith, renders him temporarily mute and thus unable to vocalize the best news he's ever heard. Joseph and Mary, far from home and robbed of the traditional serenade by neighbors at the birth of a son, instead got a choir of angels in the sky. 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—spends his first night in a feeding trough slick with animal saliva and unchewed food.
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 one disruption 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 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, Arabians, Sudanese, 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 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 rulers scattered with the proud 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 prophecy that sets a lofty tone for the spread of the Good News: »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.«
Unfortunately, looking back over two millennia of Christian history, I see much evidence of disruption caused not just by Jesus' message but also by his followers. At this very moment war sabers are rattling, the land of Jesus' birth convulses and bleeds, and the worldwide 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 be seen as a dawning of light and annunciation of peace.
The angel choir announced Jesus' birth with the words, »on earth peace, good will toward men.« If only today we men and women could live out those words that filled the sky that Christmas day so long ago.