The Perpetual Divide
The Church sees in the birth of Jesus 2000 years ago (and for that matter every year at Christmas) a turning point in the history of humankind. With the arrival of Jesus and his Gospel among us a door opened into a whole new way of being – while we remained free to pass through that door or hesitate, stand still, even backtrack into our usual human way of being. Indeed, the birth narratives of Christmastide – of St. Matthew and St. Luke – dramatize the challenge his coming presents to us every day of our lives. Let’s focus on the characters in the drama.
King Herod: he feigns interest in the news of Jesus’ birth, tells the Magi to let him know where this infant king is so he can go and pay his respects. But actually he feels threatened by any possible pretender to his throne, his control of his world. He actually intends to erase this Jesus as disruptive of the status quo – his policy of rule by fear – even if it means overkill: the massacre of every infant currently born in Bethlehem.
Zachary: he’s an old priest, married to a woman who is beyond childbearing age, in other words – he is a man of the past. When an angel tells him a door is opening, that his wife will become miraculously pregnant with the prophet of a new age, John the Baptist, he freezes. As a Temple priest he has kept to a routine, a predictable cycle of sacrificial services guided by rubrics that standardize his every gesture and word. Never needs to think, when suddenly an angel ignores the rubrics, interrupts him with news of cosmic impact. Zachary recoils, wants a road map, ends up mute. He hesitates before a challenge to live a life that’s truly eloquent in word and deed.
Joseph: an older man betrothed to a young virgin who is already pregnant! Prudence suggests that he forego such a union. Good man that he is, he puts his mind to shielding the woman herself from public notice. Good guy but wrong for the right reasons until he’s pushed through the door to an unimaginable future.
On the other hand, we have
The Magi: crazy enough to follow a star across miles of desert, carrying gifts to bestow on some infant king whom the world does not know – to kneel before a country girl nursing a future that can radically turn around a past that has been one of self-inflicted pain by humans hesitant to change. And then there’s
Mary: the truly pivotal character, the hinge that allows the door to swing wide open – who when confronted by this new destiny of gracious rather than timid living says, simply: Yes! Be it done to me according to your word.
The birth stories of Christmas lay out these models whereby people respond to the door the Gospel opens to men and women everywhere in every age. Does the sunlit terrain of a gracious God and gracious being revealed to us by Christ (who once called himself the Door) blind us too much to entice our taking the step Mary and the Magi took? Or will we remain a concoction of Herod, Zachary, and prudent Joseph, stuck on cruise control for one more year?