I wonder how many of you have spent some time exploring your family tree? I have one inherited from my grandfather, but my problem is that I want to know who these people are, what they did, what they were like; and since they largely come from an obscure village in East Anglia, I can never really know. Two of our Gospels – Matthew and Luke – do give us family trees for Jesus, and about these people there is lots to know! For the story of their lives – of how often they messed up in a very human way – of how they often misunderstood what God was like or had false ideas of what God should be like – this story is, of course, the Old Testament, the first part of the Bible. Having it as a background to the new has difficulties, of course, because it is not a pretty story, but what it does do is root Jesus in a real history, showing us that he was a real human being and not a fairy tale.
The greatest difficult in this story of many failures, is that it tells of a people who thought that if only they had the military power that two of their kings had – King David and King Solomon – then all their troubles would be over. We hear this in our 1st Reading today (Micah 5:1-4) which has the great prophecy of someone who would come from the little town of Bethlehem, like King David did, and rule the people like a shepherd “with the power of the Lord”. Now we Christians believe that this has happened, that a man of the line of David born in Bethlehem has come to rule us, BUT, and it is a big BUT, that man – Jesus of course – brings in a rule which is completely different from the one many expected. For his “power” is shown in gentle service, and his rule is the defeat, not of other nations by violence, but of evil through sacrificial love.
Our Gospel too evokes the past history of the family of Jesus. For Elizabeth cries out to Mary, “Blesséd are you among women” which we Christians, of course, have turned into a prayer – the Hail Mary. But the history of that phrase is not a kind or a gentle one! For the two women of whom that phrase is used in the Old Testament both killed the enemy of their people by acts of violence. Here again, we Christians, now believe that such acts prefigure a different kind of power at work. Our Lady, unlike those other women, defeats evil by simply accepting God into her life in a special way; and she calls her son Jesus (Joshua in Hebrew) not because he will fight physical battles as the first Joshua did, but because he will fight the invisible evil that lurks close to each one of us, tempting us to put ourselves first and put others down in the process.
So our Joshua, our battle warrior, the one we know by the Greek version of his name, Jesus, takes on all the hopes of his nation, expressed often in violent or selfish ways, and fulfils them, reinterprets them, in a new way of love and service. It is a way that is also there in the writing of his nation, for the power of love, we believe, may appear “weak and helpless” – yes that is a quote from Once in Royal David’s City – but in the end such love is more powerful than any and every kind of violence that might threaten us or that we might be tempted to use.
One of the greatest of the Advent Hymns expresses all this, using what are called the “O Antiphons” of Advent. In each verse, they take a phrase of hope from the Old Testament, and show its greater meaning as a battle, not of violence and physical war, but a battle of love, against loneliness and gloom and misery, and above all against evil and death and hell. So we sing to Jesus “O Come, O come”.. “Emmanuel” which means God with us, Then we think of him as the new but very different kind of King of the line of David, calling him “Rod of Jesse” and “Key of David”. All of this is from the prophet Isaiah (7:4. 11:1 & 22:22) Then we call on him as the “Dayspring” which is a short form for “Radiant Dawn, Splendour of Eternal Light” from the Song of Songs (6:10). And finally we invoke him as the great Moses from Exodus, (3:15) giving the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, as “Thou Lord of might” who “Didst give the law… in cloud and majesty and awe.”
Most of you probably don’t know all this history from the Old Testament too well, but never mind. These great words and phrases still have the power to help you to think of the mystery of Jesus, whose birthday we are about to celebrate. The mystery of God, choosing to be born as a weak and helpless baby, choosing to be a real human being, and in this way to “come and cheer our spirits” and bring all those, who respond to him in one way or another, out of darkness and into his eternal and marvellous light.