< December 24, 2018 >

Commentary on Isaiah 9:2-7

 

In 1863, Prussian military analysts described war as defined by the presence of uncertainty, writing, “three quarters of the factors on which action in war are based are wrapped in a fog of more or less uncertainty.”1

The fog of war, so to speak, makes it near impossible to see the final endgame, and therefore predict the shape of the final outcome. Within the fog, the future remains uncertain. Directions and decisions are made cautiously, so as not to arouse the surveillance of the enemy. What can you do within the fog but wait, watch, and listen? What respite do we have but to pray for light to burn off the fog?

Isaiah’s prophecy begins with an image of darkness. A nation, its leaders, its people, and its armies have lived in the fog. The feeling that accompanies the coming light is a triumphant shout. Isaiah then describes the feelings of the breaking dawn with images of war victory. Plunder laid before the victor, broken yokes and rods of previous enemies, the boots and garments of the casualties burned in a pyre. The initial verses paint a swaggering picture of victory. The war has been won. The conquered have become the conquering, adding to their nation. Territory lost has been won back. Victory tastes sweet.

But then the war song is interrupted by a strange word: child. “For a child has been born for us.” (record scratch) Children don’t belong in our war songs. The darkness is supposed to be lifted by the light of the glimmering army. War songs are for courageous heroes who display their strength in battle. Battles aren’t for infants.

Yet, in Isaiah’s song, the victory is won not by military might, or the ingenious strategy of the generals. The fog is lifted by the creation of life, not by its destruction. Peace rests on the shoulders of a small child. Authority over the great nation is reserved for the young one.

On the eve of Christmastide, Isaiah’s prophecy prepares our imaginations for what has traditionally been a season of inversion. In his great book, Sacred Folly, Max Harris describes how the European church used the Christmas season to actively subvert the hierarchies of the church and its surrounding cultures. In medieval France, four feast days in the Christmas season were reserved to celebrate the priests and the choir. On the fourth of these days, the feast of the circumcision, the lowest of the recognized orders, the sub-deacons, were given permission to lead services.

In the 12th century, the Bishop of Sully heard of the sub-deacon services and expressly prohibited “rhythmic poetry, impersonations, and 'strange lights.’” Perhaps more telling, he also forbade the order from singing the Magnificat more than five times.2 Apparently, Mary’s song of inversion ("he has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble") was being sung so many times by the sub-deacons that the bishop felt the need to limit the singing. The sub-deacons, it seems, were leaning into the season ushered in by Isaiah. They were training their imaginations to see and express the ways in which God calls us to something besides the status quo.

To change our practices, we have to change our expectations. So, Isaiah’s prophecy begins the Christmas season by encouraging our imaginations to seek out ways to invert our expectations. This child being born is helpless, yet all authority rests upon his shoulders. This child hasn’t reached puberty, but he is the father of nations. This child wails for his mother’s breast but is the prince of peace.

In Isaiah’s passage, we get some of the initial glimpses of what salvation will look like in God’s world. It looks like peace. For a nation struggling to maintain boundaries, dominate vassal states, and secure borders, Isaiah’s prophecy seems naive. Leaders struggling with consequential geo-political conflict tell us that the security we enjoy is best won through dominance. The world tells us to put our hope in mutually assured destruction. Peace is only possible because we can assure the world that our missiles will launch before theirs land. Strength keeps the world in check, sacrifice secures peace, and spilled blood is the only message that your enemy will hear.

But Isaiah inverts the logic of the God of war. Peace, it seems, rises up as an alternative to the conflict. Blood doesn’t buy peace, blood buys more blood. As Christmas approaches, Isaiah is asking us to look someplace else for our salvation. Find another route besides the demonic price of violence. Look instead to the child. During the Christmas season, Isaiah’s vision takes on deeper significance as we see the child as a sacrificial decision of God.

Before the sacrifice of the cross that will come a few decades later, God first humbles God’s self to become helpless. As an infant, God is dependent, fragile, and needy. God becomes what we are in order that we might become more than conquerors, we might become peacemakers.


Notes:

1.Carl Von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege, Book 1, Chapter 3.

2. Max Harris, Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2011), 90.