Faith Formation

Behold the Newborn King

December 25, 2020

Words are powerful.  Yet they can also be ignored.  It’s a very ironic reality, when you think about it.  Words can cut to the heart, tear people down, and crush the soul.  Words can also build people up, give them confidence they never had before, and encourage them to do the impossible.

Or, we can just ignore them, and life goes on.

Crazy, isn’t it?  It points out an important truth:  language can only be powerful if you let it.  Words are arguably the most human attribute we have, and the most influential tool at our disposal.  They are also the easiest to overcome:  think of the power of the mute button.

This is very true in our Catholic faith.  Words have played a pivotal role in the practice, development, and understanding of our faith.  The gospel is shared person to person, by word of mouth.  The Scriptures guided our spiritual ancestors just like it does today.  In seeking to understand the great mysteries of our faith, the Church retooled words, like homoousios (translated consubstantial, meaning “of the same substance/nature”), or even made up words to describe what God did through Christ.

In the proclamation of the gospel, two key phrases, which have been with us from the beginning of Christianity, need to have a resurrection of sorts in today’s world.  These words are very powerful, powerful enough to crush empires and destroy the power of tyrants.  But they are largely ignored in today’s world, and even in the Church.

They are “Jesus Christ is Lord,” and “Son of God.”

They are ignored in the Church not because we don’t believe them, but because they’re old news.  We learn from an early age that Jesus is both God and Lord.  We hear it every Sunday.  So it goes that we become immune to their power because of repetition.  But let’s look at them in their original context, so we can see how powerful they are, and just what we’re missing.

In the Roman Empire, the political entity in which Christianity was born, there was a Lord.  He was Caesar.  The Emperor was the ultimate authority.  This was unquestionable.

There was also a son of god.  After the death of Julius Caesar, he was revered as a god.  This meant that his son Augustus, who reigned after him, could be nothing less than the son of god.  The ultimate authority in the Empire had a divine source.

Then comes Jesus.  To help us understand the conflict which is about to boil over between the Roman Empire and the newborn Christian religion, we need to look at the book of Daniel.  In two separate but similar visions (Daniel 7:1-8, 2:36-45), there are prophecies of four kingdoms that Daniel receives during the Babylonian Exile.  During the time of the fourth kingdom, the kingdom of God crushes the powers of this world in judgment.  From one of these passages, Daniel 7:13-14, comes one of the most famous prophecies of the Messiah:

“As the visions during the night continued, I saw one like a son of man coming on the clouds of heaven; when he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him, he received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed.”

There’s so much to learn from this passage, but let’s take three lessons.  First, this figure is a Davidic king.  That’s because God made a covenant with David that his kingdom would last forever (2 Samuel 7:16).  After the destruction of Judah and the Davidic kingdom, the people and their king are exiled in Babylon.  But they keep hope that David’s kingdom will rise again, reinforced by messages from the prophets.

Second, the king of this kingdom is “one like a son of man coming on the clouds of heaven.”  This is a direct divine description:  only God comes on the clouds of heaven!  Therefore this son of man, this king, is also somehow divine.

Finally, all nations serve this king.  He is above all.  No country, however great, can claim any authority or power over him.  This is backed up in Psalm 72, which speaks of the Messiah, especially verse 11:  “May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him.”

Now combine this with a prophecy from Daniel 9:24-27, in which seventy weeks of years are prophesied between the decree for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the coming of an anointed one (a messiah).  The angel Gabriel gives this prophecy to Daniel.  The decree referenced would come in 457 BC by King Artaxerxes, after two previous decrees by Kings Cyrus and Darius for the rebuilding of the Temple.  Seventy weeks of years (70 × 7 = 490 years) after 457 BC is right smack dab in the first century, 33 AD to be exact.  This is part of why there was a great messianic fervor in Jerusalem in the first century.

Now let’s fast forward to the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.  The very same angel who issued the prophecy regarding the 490 years, Gabriel, returns to earth to announce their end, as he appears to Mary regarding her virginal conception of Jesus.  In doing so, Gabriel references passages from 2 Samuel 7, where God promises David that his kingdom will never end, and David’s son would be as God’s son.  In this moment, these prophecies converge when Mary says her famous, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

Who has Mary conceived?  The son of David (2 Samuel 7), the divine Messiah who will rule the world (Daniel 7, Psalm 72).  This is proven in great power through Christ’s death and resurrection:  He has proven his divine lordship over all things, even death itself.

So when the first Christians start speaking of Jesus, they do so using some political themes drawn from these prophecies.  Because of the Resurrection, Jesus is the divine King—which means that Caesar is neither divine (son of god) nor the ultimate authority (lord).  These first Christians relentlessly proclaimed the lordship of Christ in the face of the Roman Empire.  Mark’s gospel even begins with what could be seen as a taunt to the power of Rome:  “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”  This opening line, actually written in Rome, shows the new world order—including the new political order—that has come to fulfillment in Christ.  God has reclaimed His divine throne, and in fulfillment of the prophecies, all nations will come and worship God in Christ the King.

The time of the Church, therefore, is the time of proclamation of the kingship of Christ to the world.  It beliefs are not a set of private beliefs, but the fulfillment of centuries of prophecy, through which the world is reconciled to God, our sin conquered, and death destroyed.  The Church becomes the vehicle of salvation, whose leaders beg to early Christians, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).

The image I always have when I think about these things is the old western showdown between the sheriff (or marshal) and the outlaw.  With eyes on each other and hands on their guns, they become locked in a battle they know only one of them will walk away from.  But before it can start, the one embodying the law—the sheriff or marshal—must say that famous line:  “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.”

This is the showdown that now transpires whenever anyone claims absolute earthly power.  Christ has already won this power, and no one can take it from Him.  He is the very incarnation of God’s Law, Truth, Justice, and Mercy Itself.  And any pretenders or challengers to His throne will be met with a fight.  Up and down the centuries, Christ has faced down those who claim absolute power through His Body, the Church.  Our brothers and sisters have fearlessly stood up to tyrants, kings, terrorists, militants, emperors, communists, and anyone else who claims the ability to rule apart from God (and those who abuse authority given by God).  The Church stands on the Messianic foundation of Christ’s kingship.  We proclaim the truth of the reign of God in the face of evil—because this reign was established to destroy evil itself.

So don’t allow those two phrases, “Lord Jesus” and “Son of God,” to be forgotten or ignored.  Realize the power of those words:  the power to neutralize armies, the power to crush empires, the power to bring regimes to their knees.  This Christmas season, let’s take time to remind ourselves that Jesus is actually Lord.  And He’s not just Lord of my life, but Lord of all creation.  Don’t be afraid to share this good news with others:  it’s their way to salvation.  Don’t be afraid to live this faith publically:  it’s meant to be public.  And don’t be afraid to give your heart to the King, despite all the uncertainties of life:  the One who reigns, the One who rose from the dead, holds your heart in His heart, so that you can live with Him forever in heaven.