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Of Worldly Power and Christmas Tidings

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A word about Christmas. Just a word. Having nothing to do with the so-called wars over "happy holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas" and such ephemera.

The late elections -- the way they came out doesn't matter for present purposes -- provide useful context for musing on some Christmas particulars: to wit, good tidings of great joy that politicians (supply your own adjectives) don't run the world. What's Christmas about, at one level of understanding, if not the futility of the whole secular enterprise -- rules, regulations, codes, kings, and so on and so on?

Government? Ancient Judea had it in spade -- the Roman kind; the most meticulous, the fairest, the most efficient form of government up to that point.

Even by contrast with Israel and Judah's homegrown monarchies, Roman rule had its sunny characteristics. There was order, there was comparative peace -- nothing like the chaos and dissension under the kings God had raised up reluctantly to supplant the old judges of Israel. The judges, alas, despite good intentions, hadn't worked out according to original design. Nor had the kings, as experience showed all too plainly -- pursing their own ambitions, doing "what was evil in the sight of the Lord."

Eventually, in came the Romans, who made the chariots run on time. As far as human eyes could see, there was loomed magistrates and decrees, and human desire pitted against human desire.

Whereupon God upset the apple cart: turned the world upside down. The most extraordinary personage in all of history showed up in, of all places, a stable, surrounded by shepherds, of all low-born riffraff.

The birth of Jesus Christ is rebuke to the pretensions of all those princes and princelings we are bidden by the Psalmist not to trust overmuch. Who are they anyhow, these petty potentates with the large titles against the Son of God?

Put to a 21st-century audience, the question has a distinctly 19th-century aroma. The present century keeps nervous distance from the Son of God: afraid to renounce him entirely (what if he's really who he said he was?) and afraid to embrace him (who needs politicians and officials and functionaries of various kinds, saying nothing of lobbyists, if this world turns out to be more a way station than the end of the line?).

Modern power machines exist for their own sakes, churning and spewing out laws -- with what result? Particular problems disappear or fall from consciousness, and new ones crop up overnight. Some power! We put our trust in princes; invariably the princes strike out or go down for the count. At just that point, another comes to make all things supposedly right. So far, no dice.

Among the powers of the world, the Prince of Peace alone endures: the possessor of a kingdom "not of this world," as he memorably put it. Our own times, grossly material, like all modern times, have no inkling of how to welcome a prince disdainful of worldly power. And for the most part, we are disrespectful toward its employment.

Jesus -- the Babe of Bethlehem, Messiah, King of Kings and Lord of Lords -- is quite a morsel for modern appetites: dead yet alive, absent yet present, supremely powerful, while equal to the very lowest in his humanity. What's his foreign policy? ("Go ye therefore, and teach all nations ... ") How does he stand on QE2 and Medicaid and tax-cut extensions and health care? ("Blessed are the poor ... ") On crime? (Whosoever "is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment ... ")

The COPYHAsecular world knows nothing else like it. What it does know, it neither admires nor trusts. As the Babe of Bethlehem extends once more a tiny finger ready for grasping, the world holds back in anxiety.

So many worldly temptations already yielded to! So many chances for divine communion -- gone with the wind! What of this latest chance? What of the silent and holy night about to fall upon a still-anxious, still-unready world?

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