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Christmas Warfare

December 19th, 2013 No comments

Christmas Warfare
Every year, I just have to chuckle a little bit about the pundits and pastors weeping and wailing over the so-called “War on Christmas.” Apparently businesses frantically trying to respect their clientele by saying “Happy Holidays” and government sensitivity to religious freedom and the separation of church and state are ruining Christmas for us all. Of course, not even Herod’s bloody War on Christmas was able to destroy Christmas, and the Powers that Be would later kill the Christ but still lose the War on Christmas. I don’t think today’s religious hyper-sensitivity will destroy Christmas, either.

But as I was reading through the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke this year, I was struck that Christmas really has much to do with warfare.

“Fear not, the Lord is with you”
In the Christmas stories, unlikely people are repeatedly given the promise, “Fear not. . . the Lord is with you.”1 In fact, the entire Gospel of Matthew is framed by this promise.2 This is more than mere pious platitude; it is, among other things, traditional holy war language. It is the ancient battle cry of the children of Israel.3 This is the cry with which Moses rallies the people of Israel in the quintessential Old Testament Holy War at the Exodus (Ex. 14:13-14).

Political Intrigue and Subversion
Curiously, both Matthew and Luke make mention of significant political authorities in their birth narratives. What could a baby born into rags have to do with kings and emperors? Matthew’s narrative revolves around the sinister machinations of Herod, Rome’s client “King of the Jews.” Herod became king when, with the backing of Rome, he besieged and captured Jerusalem and ordered the execution of the ruling “King of the Jews,” Antigonus II. The Magi from the east come searching specifically for the child born “King of the Jews.” Herod perceived the child as a rival king and therefore a military, political, and mortal threat. Thus Herod launched the horrific War on Christmas (Mt. 2:16).

Political themes whispered in Matthew are shouted in Luke. It is Caesar Augustus’s census decree that lands Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Augustus’s birth was hailed as “the beginning of the good tidings [“gospel”] of the world.” Because he established the Roman Peace (Pax Romana/Augusti), he was revered as a shining light, a Savior sent by Providence. Augustus was all too happy to oblige, eagerly claiming the title of “Son of the Divine.”4 Later Caesars would require their subjects to confess them as Lord and God.5 Strikingly, Luke refers to Jesus as Son of God (1:35), Savior, and Lord (2:11).6 His birth is hailed as “good tidings [“gospel”]. . . for all people” (2:10), which marks the “shining” of an age of peace (1:78-79; 2:13).

Mary’s prophetic song (1:46-55) makes all these undertones explicit: proud hearts are scattered; the powerful are dethroned; the lowly are lifted up; the hungry are filled; and the rich leave empty-handed. It is the subversive language of revolution. The true Lord has arrived in the frailty of a tiny newborn, wrapped not in royal robes, but rag cloths; laid not in a bassinet fit for a king’s palace, but in a feed trough because this baby was apparently not considered important enough for more refined accommodations. This, we are told, is the true King.

Angels
Often the Christian imagination conjures up images of Precious Moments angel children singing sweetly through the night. But the heavenly host of the Christmas stories are more like God’s battle-hardened soldiers (lit. “army”) who combat the spiritual forces that oppose the purposes of God.7 Their message is not a pious table grace, but a triumphant battle cry. No wonder the shepherds were quaking in their sandals.

Gabriel in particular, whose name means roughly “God is my strength,” is mentioned only in Daniel and Luke. He is of some slightly lower or similar rank to his comrade, the illustrious archangel Michael, “one of the chief princes.” Both Gabriel and Michael join battle with the forces opposed to the purposes of God, identified with worldly kingdoms.8 In Daniel, he is “the man Gabriel” (9:21), “having the appearance of a man” (9:15). The presence of this battle-hardened messenger evokes fear (9:17). When the priest Zechariah dares to question Gabriel, Gabriel thunders indignantly, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of God!” (Luke 1:19). Zechariah was scared speechless! The angels come announcing the very invasion of God into human life. A Savior is at hand, the Christ, the Lord, the Son of God, and Gabriel is the chief recruitment officer of heaven’s armies.

To War!
It would seem to be an incredibly bizarre way to frame the coming of a child born into rags. What could be more commonplace, more frail, more human? What does a baby have to do with battles and bloodshed? Yet this child’s advent is surrounded by a terrible war of cosmic proportion!

Depending on your view of holy war in the trajectory of biblical revelation, the New Testament completely replaces, rejects, redeems, upends, transposes, subverts, and/or fulfills OT holy war traditions. Following the lead lamb-of-godof Zech. 9:9-10, Jesus and his disciples make a pure mockery of military-royal pomposity in the (Anti-)Triumphal Entry. The Pauline writings spiritualize warfare (2 Cor. 10:3-4; Eph 6:12) and explicitly describe the “gospel of peace” as battle gear (Eph. 6:15)! In Revelation, Jesus’ weapon is his word of truth (19:15), and his robe is dipped in blood prior to battle. As John watches, suddenly the mighty pride fighter Lion shimmers into the Lamb Who Was Slain (5:5ff), the subversively true image of divine power and victory in battle. The faithful conquer by this Lamb’s blood, which they themselves also shed; by the courageous word of their testimony (martyria, 12:11); and by “following the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).

The pathos of battle is retained in the mission and identity of God’s people, but its assault is redirected against the “spiritual forces of evil,” “principalities,” and “powers.” Its weaponry is remade into gear forged not of steel, but of truth, justice, gospel-peace, faith, salvation, and God’s Word. Its tactics and strategies are prayer in the Spirit, service, sacrifice, martyrdom, peacemaking, patience, testimony, and obedience.

At any rate, if you want to know what holy warfare truly looks like, Christmas is the place to start. God was invading the world not with the power of coercion, but with the power of grace. Heaven’s army was singing its battle hymn, not of yet more war-making, but of unprecedented peace-making. Its general is a helpless baby clothed in rags squirming in a feed trough in a backwater town. Its heralds are lowly shepherds. Its crushing defeat is its moment of greatest triumph, sealing forever the victory of the Kingdom of God.

God is invading every corner of human life with grace and peace!

And the Infant King wants you! Join now the Child of Rags, the Lamb Who Was Slain, in the battle of the age against domination, violence, hatred, oppression, lust, deceit, bondage, Satan, Sin, and Death! Join now the Infant’s piercing cry of defiant hope! Join now invasion of justice, mercy, grace, and love! Join this Christmastide the whole host of the Kingdom of God in Bethlehem’s onslaught of peace and salvation! By the Lamb’s blood flowing in and from our veins will we conquer. By God’s word of truth will we overcome. By the gentle word of our testimony will we gain victory in the Spirit. By following the Lamb wherever he goes will we share his triumph. Do not be afraid! The child is named Immanuel, God with Us!

Notes:
1 Mt. 1:20, 23; Luke 1:13, 28, 30; 2:10-11
2 Mt. 1:20, 23; 28:5, 10, 20.
3 See, e.g. Deut. 20:1; Joshua 1:5, 9; Judges 6:12; Isa. 7:4, 14; 41:10-13; cf. Gen. 21:22; Num. 14:42-43; Ps. 23:4-5; 27:1; 27; 46; 118:6.
4 Also in reference to his popular posthumous adoptive father, Julius Caesar, who had been divinized by the Senate.
5 Cf. John 20:28; Rom. 10:9.
6 Here Jesus is also called Christ, the title by which the Romans believed the Jews called their rulers.
7 See also Joshua 5:13-15.
8 Dan. 10:13, 21; cf Jude 1:9; Rev. 12:7.

Categories: Bible, Essays Tags: , ,

A Brief Exegesis of Matthew 6:11 (// Luke 11:3)

April 29th, 2010 No comments

I thought it would be fitting to begin this blog with an exegesis of Matthew 6:11, the source of this site’s name. It’s a fascinating study that involves a good amount of Greek, so hang on for the ride!

Translating επιούσιος (“Daily”)

The Greek term επιούσιος is notoriously difficult to translate, occurring only twice in the entire New Testament (Mt. 6:11 // Luke 11:3), with only two possible but disputed occurrences outside the New Testament. The extreme rarity of this term, coupled with the fact that it appears in both Matthew and Luke at the same place, likely indicates that Matthew and Luke had a common Greek source, such as the posited Q source, or that one writer used the other as a source. Recalling that Jesus spoke Aramaic, it is possible that whoever translated the prayer into Greek used this particularly obscure construction to capture some complexity of meaning in Aramaic that is difficult to translate into Greek. In fact, Origen posited that the gospel writers themselves invented the term. Arland J. Hultgren notes four possibilities for translation and etymology:1

  1. “Necessary/For subsistence.” The etymology here is επί (“for”) + ουσία (“being/existence/substance”). The main weakness to this option is that the iota is generally elided (dropped) in such a situation; we would expect επούσιος instead.
  2. “For the existing [day].” Eπιούσιος is a contraction of επί την ούσαν (“for the existing/present”). This option also suffers from the same elision problem as above.
  3. “Coming [day].” Eπιούσιος is a participle of έπειμι (“come upon”). A common participial usage is ή έπιούσα ήμερα (“the coming day”), often abbreviated ή έπιούσα. Eπιούσιος is then formed from επιουσ + ιος. Using this etymology, the translation is, “Give us today our bread for/of the coming [day].” Some additional support comes from the extra-canonical “Gospel according to the Hebrews,” which translates “of tomorrow.” But why not use the more familiar participial forms — or even the familiar noun αύριον (“tomorrow”)?
  4. “Coming bread.”  The etymology remains the same as 3), but the adjective now modifies “bread” instead of “day.”

Textual Context

Matthew and Luke differ slightly with their presentation of the phrase in question. The imperative “Give” is in the aorist active tense in Matthew (similar to the way we usually think of imperatives), while Luke uses the progressive active tense, indicating repeated action. Furthermore, Matthew and Luke have chosen different adverbial constructions to modify “Give.” Matthew uses σήμερον (“today/this day”), while Luke uses καθ’ ήμεραν (“daily”), which answers Luke’s iterative imperative nicely. Therefore, we have Matthew: “Give us today our επιούσιον bread,” and Luke: “Continue giving us daily our επιούσιον bread.”

Luke’s usage of the imperative and the adverb indicate a sort of continual action. Interestingly, Luke uses the same adverbial construction in 9:23, “. . . take up their cross daily,” an addition to the statement as recorded in Mark and Matthew. Some have wondered whether Matthew and Luke both added the adverbial modifier in order to clarify the meaning of the obscure επιούσιον; however, it is probably more likely that Luke simply modified the phrase so that it would flow with the larger themes of day-by-day discipleship in his Gospel. Furthermore, Exodus 16:5 LXX contains the same adverbial construction, and Luke may be making a canonical connection (Huldgren).

Indeed, in choosing the vocabulary of bread, Jesus pulled in a richness of biblical significance. I imagine that the Exodus story was most immediate in his listeners’ imaginations: unleavened bread at the Passover and manna (“bread from heaven”) in the wilderness. The idea of “coming bread” captures this powerful memory of bread coming from God. The New Testament — especially the gospels — further adds to its significance: the Last Supper, feeding the multitudes, “not by bread alone,” the Bread of Life, and so forth.

Eschatology

Much of the discussion so far has been implicitly pointing toward the question of the role of eschatology in interpreting this phrase. Eschatology literally has to do with “last things.” However, biblical eschatology follows a slightly different paradigm of the fulfillment of things. We generally tie in ideas of salvation or the “big picture”. I like to think of it has having to do with “the coming fullness of God’s Reign,” or “the full realization of God’s New Creation.”

Clearly, the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come,” is eschatological. So is the second, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The overlapping of heaven and earth, or the coming of heaven to earth, is a common biblical eschatological motif, indicating God’s sphere of influence being present in the entire created order.

But the eschatology of the remaining petitions is debated. Clearly, there is a “dailiness” to them — especially in Luke’s version. We need bread each day. Forgiveness is needed each new day, and deliverance too. But need daily discipleship preclude eschatological hope in this passage?  I don’t believe so for several reasons, two of which follow:

First, each successive petition in the Lord’s Prayer can be seen as supporting the first (“Thy kingdom come”). Further, each successive petition is a sign of God’s kingdom: God’s will is done (God reigns); all have bread, which comes from God (justice); forgiveness abounds (righteousness and mercy); and God’s deliverance reigns (peace and victory).

Second, the New Testament affirms both a realized and an expectant eschatology. That is, in the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s future has begun, God’s reign has been inaugurated, the Spirit has come, and creation is being restored! At the same time, we hope for a coming fulfillment of what is begun. Holding these two convictions together, the church sees itself as a foretaste of the coming fullness of God’s reign. Day-to-day discipleship becomes a sign, instrument, and agent of God’s New Creation. Daily discipleship is therefore an eschatological act, and the traditional wedge between dailiness and eschatology is overstated.

Conclusion

So, what are we left with? I think Jesus purposefully chose a rich image and at least somewhat unique vocabulary in Aramaic (which also found its way into the Greek) to communicate a multifaceted idea. At its most basic level, the petition is a corporate prayer for simple human needs (a sign of God’s future). It is also a prayer that recognizes the sustenance that comes from God alone (our “coming bread”).  And it goes beyond in fervent expectation of sharing and becoming a foretaste of God’s tomorrow. I think “coming bread” is the translation that best captures the richness of meaning being communicated here. I also think “bread of tomorrow” is highly evocative and a correct expression of one meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, which beautifully captures our future hope expressed already in the present. In the case of naming a website, aesthetics wins over exegesis!

Notes:
1. Arland J. Hultgren, “The Bread Petition of the Lord’s Prayer,” Anglican Theological Review Supplemental Series (11 March 1990): 41-54.

Categories: Bible Tags: , ,