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Readings: 1st Sunday of Christmas

19 December 2014

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1st SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

Isaiah 61.10-62.3; Ps. 148 (or 148.7-end); Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21

Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

FOR three months in 2000, the National Gallery's "Seeing Salvation" exhibition drew viewers in numbers that vastly exceeded the predicted interest. A good proportion of those who streamed in would simply have been taking the opportunity to view a magnificent collection of religious art under one roof. Yet that did not totally account for the crowds. It seemed that many people had come hoping to see, through all the nativities, crucifixions, post-resurrection scenes, and more abstract works, something more elusive and more enduring than the biblical events portrayed. Those who were attentive will have found that longing fulfilled; for what the exhibition so skilfully articulated was the paradox of salvation: what has already happened and what is still to come are held together in a single idea.

This is the paradox that is played out through what has come to us as The Prophecy of Isaiah. Contemporary commentators recognise its multiple authorship and its roots in different periods of history, but also admire the skilful editing that has woven it together and highlighted the themes that run through the whole composition. At the centre stands the relationship of Jerusalem with God. The story of the city of the Davidic kings oscillates between glory and humiliation, and faithfulness and arrogant neglect of God's supreme rule. As the final part of the prophecy unfolds, things appear at last to be moving towards the restoration of the city's position, but then come the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, and the captivity of a large part of its population.

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The metaphor chosen to describe these events is that of a marriage, and perhaps we may imagine Jerusalem herself speaking in the descriptions of bridal garments of salvation, righteousness, and praise (Isaiah 61.10-11). This image is reinforced in the promise of a new name, revealed in the verses following this passage. It will proclaim to the whole world God's delight in marrying the city, and the return of lost status and holiness (Isaiah 62.4-5; see also Jeremiah 33.16; Ezekiel 48.35). Ironically, the vision is not yet achieved. There will be further chapters of lament and warning, concluding in an ambiguous picture of salvation for a godly and obedient Jerusalem (Isaiah 66).

Luke's shepherds, unlike the returning exiles of Isaiah, did see salvation breaking into their world. Did this change anything for them? Presumably they went back to work eight days before the baby was given the name that means "Yahweh saves" (Luke 1.31), and continued to live under Roman occupation, carrying out their usual tasks. But their experience had shifted the horizon of hope, both personally and for those to whom they testified that they had seen the saviour.

Paul offers the Galatians another perspective. Salvation has already happened; the "fullness of time" has come (Galatians 4.4). As in other letters, he embeds a challenge in the good news. If God has redeemed the Gentiles in order to make them children and not slaves, that implies a certain kind of behaviour, a new way of understanding their relationship to God. Where Isaiah found an illustration in marriage, Paul chooses adoption. Anyone living under Roman rule would have grasped this easily. The imperial line consisted of successive adoptions of adult men who became the reigning Emperor's son, under a legal arrangement that trumped their bonds to their biological families. The same legal system kept the inhabitants of the Roman Provinces firmly in their place. Paul's picture is a radical one, in which Jesus, who takes on humanity through submission to biological law in his birth and to Jewish law in his circumcision, admits his followers into a new status under a better law. His manifestation as the Son of God draws all humanity into a new identity as sons of God, entitled to say "Abba! Father!" (Galatians 4.6).

In the next week, the Church will keep two feasts: the Holy Innocents (28 December or transferred to 29), and the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus (1 January). It is a good time to pray - in that most powerful of names - for all the unnamed victims of war, genocide, famine and disease, abuse and exploitation, "that, as he came to share in our humanity, so [they and] we may share the life of his divinity".

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