Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

Isaiah 62:6-12 is the Proper 2 Old Testament Christmas reading every year.

December 25, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 62:6-12

Isaiah 62:6-12 is the Proper 2 Old Testament Christmas reading every year.

Paired with Luke 2, however, it doesn’t attract much attention. Indeed, it seems an odd Christmas reading, with no baby, no mother, shepherds, or magi. It’s not about Bethlehem but Jerusalem, a city Luke hasn’t even mentioned yet. Yet one detail stands out repeatedly in Luke 2, bringing the two passages together, a detail so familiar we know it by heart: “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger” (verse 7, King James Version); “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (verse 12); “the babe lying in a manger” (verse 16).

If it weren’t so familiar, this thrice-told manger would be startling. Lofty words had heralded Jesus’ birth in Luke’s story for over a year: Gabriel’s to the priest Zechariah, then to Mary; Elizabeth’s words, followed by Mary’s, followed by Zechariah’s. And finally the angel speaks again in the shepherd’s field. Each time, the message floats gently on clouds of abstract nouns: joy, good news, kingdom, Son of God, savior, mercy, salvation, covenant, oath, holiness, righteousness, forgiveness, peace, Messiah.

But the message lands on earth with a resounding thud. After proclaiming good news of great joy for all, news of a savior, a Messiah, the angel drops all abstraction and instructs puzzled shepherds to seek one of many swaddled newborns but — hurtling past the common to the rude — lying in a feeding trough. Salvation is a great vision; reality is material; it is rough, unsanitary. This nursery would never suit the paper’s home-of-the-week montage, though it could be exploited by a heart-wrenching expose on homelessness.

For this passage’s setting in Isaiah overall, see the discussion of Isaiah 61:10-62:3 on January 1.
Like Luke’s story, Isaiah 62:6-12 holds heavenly vision in earthen vessels, celebrating divine glory found in the material, the tangible, the all-too-measurable. Jerusalem’s reality in this prophet’s time was anything but “renowned throughout the earth.” It is doubtful, in fact, that the city even had walls for sentinels to stand upon. Lamentations 2:8 describes God’s having destroyed them in the Babylonian war, and verse 18 envisions the broken walls themselves crying out. Isaiah 54:12 promises God will rebuild Jerusalem’s walls out of precious stones. Isaiah 60:10 proclaims, again, that they will be built.

But long after reconstruction supposedly began, Nehemiah heard the walls were still, shamefully, broken (Nehemiah 1:3), and set out to get the job done with sweat and setback and sheer perseverance. So this prophet’s words could mean one of two less-than-literal things: first, the preposition ‘al, which is usually translated “on” or “upon,” might here mean “about” or “concerning”: “concerning your walls, Jerusalem, I have set watchmen” to remind God to get moving on this long-promised restoration project. The other possibility is that it does mean “on your walls,” but that the walls are figurative. In either case, the “watchmen” too are probably figurative: not guards, but praying prophets.

Even the mention of walls, then, spotlights security that isn’t yet secure. Some real walls would be nice. When basic safety is attended to, loftier things such as salvation, justice, and peace can be pondered. But first we need a door we can lock at night. Ideals are mediated to humans through the material world, through what is mundane, through what is even crude or rude.
This same intertwining of the heavenly and earthly continues in verse 8. “The Lord has sworn,” used to precede grand futures and big gifts, descendants, fruitful land, kingdom, victory (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:10; Psalm 132:11).

What God swears by is also huge — God’s right hand and mighty arm (Psalm 89:13; Isaiah 51:9). But now it comes down to this: the food you grew, you will eat; it won’t be taken from you. In an unprotected city familiar with taxation and invasion, where even God threatened to take the food away (Leviticus 26:16; Deuteronomy 28:31-34; Isaiah 1:19-20), where many starved during and after the siege (Lamentations 1:11, 19; 2:19-20; 4:4, 9-10), this is big. In fact, Micah’s vision of world peace culminates in everyone sitting unafraid under their own vines and fig trees (4:4). So there is a deep relationship between basic food security and the loftier ideals the prophet proclaims. Some real food would be nice.

Transportation infrastructure comes up next. This is a touchy subject where I live, where in twenty years of repeated promises, a bridge over a major river on a busy interstate has not materialized, while in the meantime another highway bridge has broken and closed. The discussion in verses 10-11 of preparing the way, building a highway, and God coming with reward and recompense echoes and recasts Isaiah 40:3, 4, and 10, and it will be echoed and recast again in the gospels, beginning with Zechariah’s words in Luke 1:76, where it is fully spiritualized. In Isaiah these roads are only part metaphor. God can come and go any way God pleases and needs no road, but the Judeans returning to Zion do need infrastructure, as do all those foreigners who will do business with Zion, come to worship there, and help make it renowned throughout the earth, sought out, a city unforsaken.

It is in these substantive realities, the basics of shelter and sustenance, trade and transportation, that all that is glorious is both conceived and born. For many years I have taken groups to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and all that Christians now call the “Holy Land.” Expectations always soar, and the real world of airports, highways, falafel, and dust often disappoint those hoping to float along the heavenly city’s golden streets. The Church of the Nativity is dark and rough, the shushing and herding priests too harsh, and the fourteen-point star marking the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth a replica, its predecessor stolen in 1847, igniting the Crimean War. Yet this-worldly salvation consists in these rough things — shelter, food, roads, clothing, and a quiet corner, however rude, to lie down, to sleep, to dream.