Christmas: O Holy Nightmare: Incarnation and Apocalypse

seasonsExcerpt and reflection from Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s Seasons of Faith and Conscience: Explorations in Liturgical Direct Action

A great sign appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. Because she was with child, she wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the heaven: it was a huge dragon, flaming red, with seven heads and ten horns; on his heads were seven diadems. His tail swept a third of the stars from heaven and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, ready to devour her child when it should be born.She gave birth to a son–a boy destined to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and to his throne. The woman herself fled into the desert, where a special place had been prepared for her by God; there she was taken care of for twelve hundred and sixty days.Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. Although the dragon and his angels fought back, they were overpowered and lost their place in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent known as the devil or Satan, the seducer of the whole world, was driven out; he was hurled down to earth and his minions with him….When the dragon saw that he had been cast down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the boy. But the woman was given wings of a gigantic eagle so that she could fly off to her place in the desert, where, far from the serpent, she could be taken care of for a time, and times, and half a time.The serpent, however, spewed a torrent of water out of his mouth to search out the woman and sweep her away. The earth then came to the woman’s rescue by opening its mouth and swallowing the flood which the dragon spewed out of his mouth.Enraged at her escape, the dragon went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep God’s commandments and give witness to Jesus. He took up his position by the shore of the sea. (Revelation 12:1_9, 13_17)

Some 30 years ago, Fritz Eichenberg, the artist associated for so long with the Catholic Worker, published in those pages a wonderful and disturbing depiction of the Nativity. In the center foreground lies the babe on hay and in swaddling clothes. Nestled round are an adoring donkey and a cow. Through the crossbeams above, a star points down from the heavens. Hallmark, you would think, would snatch up the print for a comforting and conventional Christmas card.

But wait. A closer look through the archway reveals a village nearly off the edge of the frame. However, this is not the cozy skyline set on a Judean hillside as one might expect, but a bombed_out city in flames. One has the feeling that it’s all coming this way, closing in on the child asleep, holy and innocent. Look again. Tucked beneath the hay is a soldier’s helmet. He is born in a year of war, and violence is near.

This is a biblically accurate portrait. We suffer much from the static tableau of Christmas card and creche. The biblical images of the incarnation are rendered flat and frozen. A quaint pastoral idyll is evoked.

Oh yes, the incarnation of Christ is a still point, a center for history, the presence of eternity in a moment of time. And the manger scene may signify well the dominion of Christ in creation, with all creatures gathered (at least by representation) and bowed down.

Nonetheless, it is a still point at the center of a furiously turning world, very nearly the eye of a hurricane, which implicates cosmic portents, the powers of history, forces marshalled and moving, threats and intrigues, journeys and exiles, and raging political violence. In our conventional manger scenes, these are pushed off the edge of the frame, out of sight and mind.

The 12th chapter of Revelation is not commonly read at Christmas time. The sign of the woman crying out and giving birth to the child with a dragon spitting threats and pursuing is not to be found among the Nativity lections. Sometimes, I think it should be. It might at least be allowed to inform our reading of the birth narratives in Matthew, Luke, and John.

The neglect of this passage might be laid to any number of causes. One is the general caution about the entire book, which, on account of its versatile and fluid images, is subject to speculative and even ecstatic misrepresentation (let that be a caution to us). Moreover, it is, as we shall see, a politically volatile chapter and not convenient where static and status quo readings are preferred. Lastly, the scholars largely refuse to read it in relation to Christ, either finding its root in more ancient “pagan” mythologies or casting it chronologically as designating some future event (which is thereby assumed to preclude association with the “past” incarnation).

Beside all of that set the remarkable thesis of Jacques Ellul in Apocalypse. He argues that the sections of Revelation are structurally focused inward, like mirrors to a center, and that this center section, the “keystone” (chapters 8_14:5), is about the life of Jesus Christ in history:

….We perceive very clearly, but in silhouette, the person, life, and work of Jesus Christ….While in the other sections Jesus Christ is determinative, here he seems to be absent. Consequently, we must admit, if there is unity and coherence to this ensemble, that Jesus is designated otherwise: here he is not Lord of Lords, the head of the Church, the Master of history. He is the God who is stripped of being God, and consequently here it is no longer possible to speak directly of God.[1]

By this reading God has risked everything to enter into creation and history incognito, in hiddenness. And by this renunciation of absolute power, by this way of humility, the cosmic and worldly powers are overturned much as Paul writes: “God disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15). But essential to this, in the Revelation allegory of the incarnation, is that the powers can smell it; they sense it and go wild with rage. Because of God’s chosen powerlessness, they go for a time unchecked and unleashed. They are granted a wide and catastrophic range.

Hence among other things, the woman and the dragon.

Now some see in the image: woman as such. Woman with a capital “W.” Here, presumably, is another primeval or eschatological encounter with the serpent. And here another outcome entirely.

In some sense she stands for and with all of humanity. The same could be said of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and I prefer to consider the woman firstly and straightforwardly to be her. Here is written in true dimension the momentous character of her decision, her assent to God, the import of her faithfulness. In this view we see no meek and mild mother swept along by events. She has made a very simple choice, taking a stand on the hope of God against all deadly odds.

Liz McAlister, imprisoned for her part in the Griffiss Plowshares action in 1983, had reflected previously and again in jail on this passage:

The woman of Revelation hoped by looking the dragon in the eye and giving birth. Look it in the eye…look death in the eye. At stake for her was her life and the life of the child–and the reign his birth promised. At stake for us is our lives and all of creation.

Mary, in the course of her pregnancy sings a song that looks the dragon in the eye and announces its doom. In this song in Luke 1:51_55, Mary sings:

Lord, you have shown strength with your arm, you have scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, you have put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; you have filled the hungry with good things, and the rich you have sent empty away. You have helped your servant Israel, in remembrance of your mercy, as you spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah and to their posterity forever.

Did she sing that song, commonly called the “Magnificat,” also as a lullaby of sorts to the babe? If so, perhaps it came back around as seed of certain beatitudes in Luke (6:21, 25).

The song and its memory are very ancient. Hannah recited it at the dedication of Samuel (1 Samuel 2), and by then it was already a well_worn psalm. When Mary employs it, the hope of Israel courses in her blood. She speaks for the whole people. She is Israel.

In the book of Revelation, the woman wears a crown of twelve stars. Can these be any less than the tribes of Israel? In scripture (and notoriously in Revelation), twelve is the number of the community. Here is Mary, here is Israel, crying out for deliverance and struggling to give birth. The Lord hears her cry, but so does the dragon. It waits, ready to devour.

The dragon is a very political creature, though that could hardly be said to exhaust its meaning. The seven heads and the ten horns are a clue in this matter. Not merely a grotesque and terrifying image, they are symbols like the stars in the woman’s crown. The horn is a standard symbol of power. The head (I’m following Ellul here) is the sign of direction, of authority and commandment, of consciousness in action. Their multiplication is over time and space and tends toward being pretentious of absolute power.

In the seven and the ten, commentators generally see seven hills and 10 emperors as an explicit reference to Rome. The analogies to Imperial Rome are expanded in the famous 13th chapter which follows. But, again, we are well_advised that this historically specific allusion should not strictly limit the meaning. As chapter 13 makes clear, it is runaway power per se which is addressed and recognized in any given state. Jeremiah saw the image of the devouring dragon in Babylon (Jeremiah 51:34), and Ezekiel saw the dragon slither down the Nile as the Egyptian pharaoh (Ezekiel 29:3, 32:2). Each of these are prototypical imperial powers in the history of Israel.

The dragon appears to be the power behind the powers, the authority within the authorities, the moral reality with a slew of names: destroyer, divider, seducer, confuser, accuser–death.

The woman looks it in the eye. And at the heavenly heart of things, it is already defeated, though not without a bitter fight. Before the woman, against the incarnation, the dragon takes up a stance that is a twisted parody of Advent. It watches. It is alert and awake, crouched and ready, preparing in its own fashion for the child’s arrival.

The powers, it is time to note, are likewise on aggressive watch in the gospel nativities. In Luke’s narrative, Caesar Augustus stands political watch. By his own decree, he claims a station at the outset of the story. By his version of events, he is the story.

Caesar’s word goes forth, and history is made. All the world (now there is a totalizing intention!) should be enrolled. The whole of humanity is to be set in motion. Step to and be numbered. He, it goes without saying, is “Number One.” This is the business of empire. Caesar’s purposes in the registration, as often noted, were several. They come down to the very basis of Roman power: taxation, military induction, and general population control. As to the latter, Rome wants to know the whereabouts and number of able_bodied folks in subject provinces likely to revolt. Perhaps Caesar has heard the words to a popular tune making the rounds about the mighty put down from their thrones. He sits uneasily, crouched and alert, ready to devour the slightest threat to Pax Romana.

Peace on earth will be sung and celebrated, but it is not the oppressive Roman Pax. Glory will be revealed, but it is not the glory that was Rome. The Word is alive and present, but not to be confused with the pompous decrees of the emperor. Among those of lowly estate, Word and glory and peace may be recognized. But for now they will slip the gaze and the grip of the powers.

In Matthew the dragon’s watch is kept by the puppet_king, Herod the Great. He is the representative of Rome. He stands for all the worldly powers. Recall that when Herod gets wind of the child’s advent, he is immediately troubled and “all Jerusalem with him.” His reaction is entirely in keeping with what the historians tell us of Herod. He had consolidated his power by military ruthlessness and political acumen, employing a series of assassinations against opposition figures and potential claimants to the throne. He had informers and secret police everywhere. In his suspicions of disloyalty, he killed three of his sons, one of his wives, and any number of close advisers.

His response to the prospect of the Messiah’s birth is more of the same tired method: to hatch yet another scheme, conceive another assassination plot. His dear hope that he too could come and worship rings a notorious false note. Herod the Great is the one famous for rehabilitation of the temple in Jerusalem. That too was cynical. It was intended to fortify the city’s economy and to effect (very successfully) a public relations campaign, shoring up his reputation with the Jews who always looked askance at his mixed ancestry. Worship was not the issue in either case. A public lie, a convenience, and pretense–false worship was afoot.

A question on which Matthew’s birth narrative turns is this: Will the Wise Men, even unwittingly, be drawn into Herod’s scheme? Will they be his agents on the scene? Will they return with names and addresses and physical descriptions? Will they understand the murderous complicity into which they are being drawn?

The wisdom of the Wise Men is that they worship the true king. Their exceeding joy and true worship has as its flip side the discernment of the false. Deep in their psyches from whence dreams come, they discern Herod’s lie. They dream, perhaps, of a dragon, crouched to devour.

Therein lies a choice for them. To return another way is a route of no small consequence. They are foreigners and guests. They travel with permission, their visas stamped with Herod’s mark. To go against a king who is not above murder is to risk his fury. Nonetheless, they non_cooperate. By their act of disobedience the child is protected.

In Revelation the child is snatched from the jaws of death abruptly, deus ex machina. The woman is lifted from harm’s way by an eagle. Is that saving presence of God really another way of speaking about those acts of discernment, conscience, and faithfulness by which the Word of God makes its way in the world: Does Providence weave through history on small choices that end up bearing large consequences?

Herod, let it be said, is furious. He has a new idea: murder again. He strikes at the body of Christ by striking at the body of humanity. He sends in the troops, who are more obedient, and goes for the children. The point of the passage is not that Jesus is exempted from suffering. Indeed, he is barely born, and already he is a refugee and exile. The point of the passage is the opposite: He will share their fate. At Jesus’ birth Herod’s power is unleashed and exposed nakedly for what it is. He follows and worships the dragon–death. In the end the Lord will walk into the jaws of that power.

At every turn it appears an absurd mismatch: a woman and a dragon, a babe and the kings of this world, a messiah of utter folly and the power of death. But that is precisely the method that God has chosen in the incarnation. God risks everything on the power of powerlessness.

The topic of Christmas is whether we have the eyes to see it. And the heart to follow.

It is said in Revelation 12 that the woman and the dragon appear as a great sign. The Greek word is semeion. It’s the same word the old prophet uses when he announces to Mary, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against” (Luke 2:34). And it’s the same word the angel announces to the shepherds, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).

John’s preface holds that when the Word became flesh, many didn’t recognize it. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, but it didn’t know him. He came to his own, and they didn’t acknowledge or receive him. But some did. Christmas has to do with seeing the signs, with recognition, with discerning God’s presence in the world.

William Stringfellow, a theologian of the incarnation if ever there was one, wrote in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land:

Discerning signs has to do with comprehending the remarkable in common happenings, with perceiving the saga of salvation within the era of the Fall. It has to do with the ability to interpret ordinary events in both apocalyptic and eschatological connotations, to see portents of death where others find progress success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality…of hope where others are consigned to confusion or despair. Discerning signs does not seek spectacular proofs or await the miraculous, but, rather, it means sensitivity to the Word of God indwelling in all Creation and transfiguring common history, while remaining radically realistic about death’s vitality in all that happens.

Lord, for such a comprehension in this season and all, grant us the heart.


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