Advent promises the birth to end all births. But that birth of 2,000 years ago remains a promise of something yet to come. And we all still live in the world of Zephaniah the prophet, a world of greed and war, a world where religion veers between militant violence and shallow entertainment, a world where children go to school…and never come home again…
And here we are on the 3rd Sunday in Advent, traditionally a Sunday that sings with joy after the darker tones of the first two Sundays in Advent. St. Paul’s words to the Philippians define this day. The ancient introit sings, “Gaudete in Domino semper, iterum dico, gaudete!” “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice!” This from a man in a Roman prison, awaiting his death.
It is important to grasp the larger context of the words of Zephaniah, so as to grasp the larger context of the birth of the Baby of Bethlehem. Too many “Hallelujah” choruses and chestnuts roasting on open fires can make Jack and Jill dull children!
We are forced to remember that this is not a “Marshmallow World” much as we would prefer a Christmas season of escapism. The occasion of Jesus’ birth is within the rapacious empire of Rome. His birth comes during the monstrous reign of a violent tyrant, Herod, whose fear of rivals drove him to murderous lengths. The reality of Jesus’ birth is a setting far from home.
And without the darker tones of the early Advent Readings we run the yearly risk of making the birth of Jesus little more than an occasion for presents and parties and the promise of diets yet to come. Jesus was born into a world very much like the world of Zephaniah, a world very much like our own.
So when this prophet bursts into glorious song, bidding his listeners, “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” it is very easy to forget all the angry words from God that have preceded this passage, words about the state of His world, about the state of His own people.
We also live in a time when we hope for that ultimate Day when, as the prophet sings, “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies.” It is the Day when the true “King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst,” a Day when we “shall never again fear evil.” Never again fear…
When Eve gave birth to her firstborn son at the beginning of Genesis, she sang, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” Eve hoped that her son would be the one to crush the serpent’s head and return them to Paradise. But her firstborn would grow up to spill the blood of her second born, his brother. Now, at Christmas, Eve’s daughter, Israel, gives birth to her firstborn, Messiah! He too will grow up to shed human blood…His own.
Because this is Christmas. It is for remembering the numbing violence and evil of this world which requires such a birth as this, the manger which becomes the cross. And yet…and yet, we rejoice in this birth for us, in this cross for us. Yes, we weep with those who weep…but not without hope, not without peace, not without joy. Yes, joy…because weeping may remain for a night, even many a night, but the morning will come, and joy always comes in the morning.
And this year…all those quiet Christmas carols of childlike simplicity are likely to bring an unexpected tear because of the many little ones who suffer the violence of this world…a violence compounded by those fools who try to explain where God is in the midst of such things, a suffering made all the more insufferable by the snark of petty atheists who have no clue, no clue at all of the depth of agony into which God Himself will descend for us and with us.
But for every tear shed in this particular Christmas season, there also lives the joy which no darkness can overcome. Easter’s joy upon the cross. Heaven’s joy within the swaddling clothes of our earthly woes.
So the song of Zephaniah today sings to all the daughters of Eve that grieve, “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst…He will quiet you with His love; He will exult over you with loud singing.”
Oh, we yearn for that world. We pray for that world. We are promised that world. Advent promises the birth to end all births. But the promise remains a promise. For now we live in the world of Zephaniah, a world of greed and war, a world where religion veers between militant violence and shallow entertainment, a world where children can go to school…and never come home again…
But we have the promise. We cling to the promise. And in that promise we rejoice…even while tears come to our eyes. Because Christ was born for this.