Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (III)

Beauty. Good tidings. Peace. Salvation. Joy. Comfort.

The light shines in the darkness
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. - John 1:5 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

December 25, 2017

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 52:7-10

Beauty. Good tidings. Peace. Salvation. Joy. Comfort.

These aesthetic marks of the Nativity of Our Lord culminate in the prophet’s proclamation: “Your God reigns!” and this is “the salvation of our God!”

Textual horizons

Critical to considering the aesthetics of this pericope is considering the historical and narrative context.

Exile. Real exile, not a metaphor.

In the wake of the enemy’s conquest, against the historical backdrop of destruction, in the midst of physical exile, the prophet speaks these words of peace. The context is not neutral. It’s also not in its origin metaphorical. Rather, the context for this language of beauty is a backdrop of ugliness: enslavement, displacement, suffering, death. Flesh and blood reality. Take to heart that this is not to disparage our attempts to relate to the beauty of Deutero-Isaiah’s poetry. Rather, it is meant to help orient our thoughts to the radical nature of this beautiful text. The exiles were kingless, landless, homeless, but not forgotten by the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

Isaiah 52 begins with the prophet’s call to the people to rise out of the ashes and to put on their best duds. The Lord is about to act. From the Lord’s mouth:

         “You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.” (Isaiah 52.3b)

This one little phrase, though properly outside of our pericope, sums up the reality of the exiles. Their exile is real, and the prophet in spite of all the evidence to the contrary can and does proclaim the promise of their freedom.

Lest we mistake that this text is solely about the exiles, it is important as well to recognize what the text says of God. The Lord’s desire, perhaps even the impetus for the Lord’s redeeming action, is that the Lord’s people know the Lord’s name (see also Isaiah 52.6). This name of the Lord is intimately tied with this movement from slavery to freedom. It is this self-revelation by the Lord that then is the object of our pericope.

What are these good tidings (see also Isaiah 52.7)?

Simply put: who God reveals God’s self to be.

“Your God reigns.” (verse 7)

“The salvation of our God.” (verse 10)

The first proclamation is for those who have no agency or power. For those who live under the thumb of a king that is not their own. Your God reigns! The kingship that matters is different from the exilic experience alone might suggest.

With this proclamation, itself a revelation, is the promise that the exiles will see the holy arm of the Lord — a demonstration of this kingly power. The poem promises that the people will see “the salvation of our God,” this God who reigns even for those living in the midst of realities that run contrary to the claim. The Lord, the king of the universe, promises to act and the act is salvific.

Homiletical horizons

In our day and age (as in perhaps all!), it does not take a great deal to conjure the trappings of exile. While it is incumbent on the preacher and the Christian in general to always keep in mind that this text was written to those who lived in the midst of true exile with all its ugly ornamentation and trappings. In our preaching and our prayers, we are called especially as we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord to be conscious of those who live in realities more analogous with those exiles who served as the initial audience for Deutero-Isaiah’s poetry.

Yet, the aesthetic of God’s kingship and the revelation of the salvation of our God remains for all to hear. This news for all is beauty-full, peace-full, joy-full — worth singing about!

Consider this Isaianic text within its Christological horizon.

As we mark again the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, tradition calls us to at least consider this reign of God, which is our salvation, revealed in the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. At the center of the beauty of this news is its paradoxical nature. God makes God’s self known — in particular God’s reign and the desire that God’s name be known — in the birth of a child. Here the Eternal Word takes on flesh and dwells among us. The holy arm of the Lord is ultimately the tiny arm of a helpless infant who would reveal the fullness of God’s kingship with arms outstretched on the cross.