Peace was proclaimed in Holland in 1945 the year I was just learning to walk. V-day is still celebrated there yearly as the, bevrijding, the liberation, from Nazi occupation and the enmity of war. My brothers remember the day and said everybody went “crazy” with joy. As I read Luke’s account of the announcement of the birth of Christ to the Shepherds, I can imagine the Shepherds, and all living in the region, “going crazy” with amazement and joy of the angelic proclamation of peace to all people, and of seeing the baby saviour in a feeding trough to prove it. A new situation had come to their lives; they now could passionately imagine an alternative social-historical reality which would touch virtually every aspect of their lives. You can’t live and flourish in a circumstance of war, oppression, persecution, or of perpetual devaluation of ones humanity; one can only survive at best. But with enmity declared over and a universal amnesty of peace declared, real life could begin again in safety. Human beings, who had been pushed to the margins of existence, could begin to dare to live again and flourish!
One wonders about readers today. With modernist commercialized senses, can we imagine the incarnation with dynamically equivalent passion and importance? Sadly, some 2000 years later, (70 since liberation in Holland) peace and justice still cannot be found on the earth for all people. There are more refugees now at the close of 2015 than at the close of World War II. The latest MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE (The Won %, Jan. 4, 2016, p. 41,) has Oxfam reminding us of the great milestone of accomplishment to come to pass in 21016: “the collective wealth of the ‘one percent’ will finally eclipse that of everyone else.” And will there be much wellbeing and peace on earth for all people? There is much to lament in our world today. Fear, not joy, has dominated the world’s headlines this past year. How could Luke so emphasize amazement and joy in his times of gross injustice.
Matthew’s birth narrative certainly presents lament and grief over the murderous cruelty of King Herod. The power hungry narcissist that he was, Herod could not countenance contenders for power even if Jesus was a harmless baby. Luke, however, emphasizes joy in his narrative structure: the Shepherds were moved from fear to joy. Later in Luke’s narrative he warns about greed and absolute self-interest among the haves of his society. However, Joy and amazement is central in Luke’s birth narrative. Joy was felt not merely as a private feeling of an eschatological peace way off at the end of world history. The joy and passion of the shepherds and locals came in the midst of their political unimportance and poverty, in their world and the unjust conditions they suffered. Yes, the gospel is social! The incarnation, though, would also cause significant resistance by the powers that be, and by those enjoying the benefits of an unjust status quo. The incarnation narrative depicts a social inversion; Mary sang about that, inversion (Lk 1: 51-53), of the raising up those of low estate, and of a bringing down of the high and mighty. The peace, eirene, the angels sang of will not fall below the scope of promised Old Testament Shalom!
Walter Brueggemann, in his book, The Prophetic imagination (2000 edition) suggests that Luke’s narrative presents an ideological critique exposing the thinking, the consciousness, a wayward “royal consciousness,” that undergirded and made possible a regime of domination, control, and oppression (p.,21). Luke draws sharp value contrasts in his biblical narrative to highlight the alternative consciousness of compassion and wellbeing for the common good in Christ. Prophetic speech is not simply about the end times, but it elucidates the state of the kingdom of God now. A prophet seeks to spark the imagination of people and turn despair into creative energy and joy (77). In Luke’s narrative of the new born saviour and lord, is not simply about a personal saviour for one’s soul`s acceptance to heaven; but, Christ’s first coming has existential, social-political implications as well. According to Brueggemann the texts serve to trigger the imagination and (re)awaken alternative thinking. The imagination must be awakened to cut through collusion and accommodation to dominant ideologies by exposing the values and thinking that support and underpin cultures of domination, exclusion, control, consumption and racism.
The story of the incarnation, as Luke presents it, jogs our imagination to open our minds as it meant to open the eyes of its first readers to the values of God’s health giving rule of justice in love and compassion in Christ. Luke’s narrative exposes the values of liberalism’s ideals gone to seed that drive international economism and militarism of our day .The “free world” of ours has enshrined wild free- enterprise and possessive, consumptive, individualism as core values! But these ideals have not brought peace to all. There is a greater need for reconciliation, social justice and peace now than ever, including the need for the “liberation” of the environment. We can lament as we remember Rachel’s lamented over her children; and grieve, as we remember that there are at least 60 million refugees in our world today, besides the homeless and poor in our own country and province. Power corrupts; consumerism and the relentless pursuit of progress, profit, and success have a numbing effect on empathy, justice, and faith. Consumerism satiates us, Brueggemann notes, and we get used to the fact of prosperity in the west as maintained for us by political-economic hegemony reflecting cultural values antithetical to the rule of Christ. We may live in what we call a “free society,” but consumer satiation, “…robs us of our capability for humanity” (Brueggemann, p. xx).
Today’s social-political realties move us to grief and lament. We grieve in solidarity with the uprooted and discarded in our modern world. But at the same time we can also hope passionately, and in amazement and joy express the values of the vision of the great inversion in our daily life for the salvation and wellbeing of the millions living in poverty, oppression, and war in our global situation. We must imagine again as the shepherds imagined, because if we can’t imagine what can and should be, we won’t be motivated to passionately speak of, and seek, the changes of thought and action necessary. The Shepherds praised the establishment of peace and wellbeing as indicated by the birth of Christ. They sang from their hearts in joy in real expectation, of enmity removed I can imagine. Despite the human suffering and inequality then, and now, joy in hope and love may not, and cannot, be extinguished. In our lament we are surprised by joy, as C.S Lewis might say; only those who mourn the sad state of affairs will be comforted. Amidst the grief of reality we can hope and rejoice because sight is restored in faith. And, our incarnate Lord, now glorified, sits at the right hand of God and rules as Lord, as the angels have proclaimed. He is no less Saviour and Lord today for us than he was in the shepherds’ imaginations and times. In our hope and love-biased imagination we know that justice-in-love is still God’s way, and a better way to achieve peace and reconciliation on earth than to trust the market forces, or by waging war; Look at what relentless competition and war has brought us!
For the shepherds the birth of Jesus was not simply a wonderful personal epiphany, but a divine revelation with an astounding social message of Christ’s rule for peace and wellbeing for all people. This is to be brought to expression by following in his footsteps, Christ’s Spirit helping us. Brueggemann emphasizes though, “The interplay between the prophetic text heard imaginatively and concrete practice is a defining one for the church that will become more crucial and more difficult, and perhaps more joyous, in time to come.” The essential question for the church concludes Brueggemann is whether or not its prophetic voice has been coopted into the culture of the day (Brueggemann, 2000, p., 125).
Christmas 2015, Henk Smidstra.