Jesus the Messiah, al-massih
- Created on Friday, 23 December 2016
Dr Damian Howard SJ (Heythrop College, University of London) reflected on the infancy narratives in the Christian scriptures at the Al-Khoei Foundation on 15 December.
Brothers and sisters,
Thank you so much for the invitation to come and talk to you this evening about the infancy narratives in the Christian scriptures. As you probably know, this season of the year in the Church is known as Advent; it’s a time of waiting and of spiritual preparation for the great feast of the Nativity of our Lord, better known in the English-speaking countries as Christmas. And the Feast of the Nativity is not about festively decorated trees or the Oxford Street lights, still less about shopping: it’s about the birth of a boy in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago to a young couple of simple means, a boy who went on to change history in the most unusual way, by letting his life become the perfect image of God’s redemptive love for His creation.
The passages of the scriptures which we read at this time of year fall under two headings: there are the New Testament accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ as we read them in the Gospels. And then there are the prophecies of the His coming which are found in the Hebrew, prophets, most notably Isaiah. We refer to these prophecies as Messianic because they look forward with hope to the day when the suffering of the Hebrew nation will finally be relieved and God will deliver it from exile in Babylon by sending a Messiah, a word which means “the anointed one” and which is rendered in Greek as “Christos”, the Christ. I don’t need to tell you that the word also appears in the Qur’an as al-massih. The prophets foretell that this Christ will lead the chosen people back to the Promised Land where he will reign justly, protecting the widow and orphan and bringing peace to the world. As you know, it is the central conviction of Christians that that little boy born in Bethlehem, son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the messiah. Jesus is the Christ.
So what does it mean to call Jesus the anointed one, the Messiah, al-massih? The first thing the scriptures tell us is that it means he is a king. And the New Testament readings make it quite clear that Jesus is the new King. The Gospel of Matthew begins with a long genealogy which I shall not read out but which makes a clear point. It’s divided into three sections of fourteen generations each. The first section begins with Abraham and ends with the reign of his descendant, the great and famous King David. Which is to say that it tells the story of God’s covenant with the great patriarch and how over centuries covenant unfolded into a golden age. David was God’s anointed. Which is why Jesus is often called not only messiah but Son of David. The second section is a story of decline and decadence, because the monarchy doesn’t live up to the expectations set up by David. The kings who follow him mostly fall into idolatry and displease God. These fourteen generations end tragically with the exile in Babylon. The third section extends from the exile to the birth of Jesus the Messiah. It’s neither a golden age nor a story of hopeless decline. It’s more a long period of instability, uncertainty, agonised expectation and disappointment pierced only by memories of God’s great deeds and a growing trust that God will one day bring things to a happy conclusion.
It’s this third period which is also most formative for the Jewish people. It’s the time when they learn to hope in God even though they cannot see Him, even when everything around them would have them give up. It’s a time of testing and above all a time for learning the great virtue of faith. It’s this time which we Christians mark in Advent by remembering the great things God has done for us and by learning to look forward in hope to the redemption won for all human beings by Jesus.
There is another story about the coming of the King in Luke’s Gospel which is also recounted in the Qur’an. It’s the story of Jesus’ conception, an episode which Christians know as the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary in Nazareth and tells her that she is to bear a son. Mary’s reply is what people always remember: “how can this be since I am a virgin?” But we tend to forget the part of the angel’s message which she accepts without batting an eyelid:
“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
A kingdom that will never end! That’s rather a surprising thing to say. It sounds as though her new son will live for ever which you would have thought would surprise any mother. But it says something about her faith that she doesn’t question any of this. She is entirely in God’s hands. If God wants to accomplish extraordinary things through her, then that is something she is willing to take a chance on. Mary exemplifies that attitude of total trust and availability to God which we should all have by the end of our Advent preparations.
I could give you other scriptural passages which make the point that Christmas is all about the birth of a new king. But I’d rather end with a few thoughts about the kind of king that Jesus is, because the rest of the Gospel story is all about communicating a very mysterious message indeed: Jesus is a king like no other. He is not like David or Solomon because he never actually occupies the throne of a nation. Nor is he a king like the many bad kings who follow in David’s line and who betrayed God’s Covenant. And He is certainly not a king like Pharaoh or Caesar or his puppet Herod who are all tyrants, relying on threats and violence to maintain their worldly dominion.
To understand the kind of King that Jesus is means entering into what we call the Paschal mystery, celebrated at the other great Christian feast of the year, Easter. I certainly can’t summarise for you tonight the deep, life-changing experience which Easter brings for the believer. But I can say that it shows us that Jesus’ kingship is far greater than that of any earthly king at all. He is a king whose power resides not in human power but in God’s power. And that power is best summed up in the word “love”. Jesus is King because God loves him totally and he loves God totally in return, and through Jesus’ obedient love, God’s all-conquering power of creative, redemptive, sanctifying love, enters the world in a new, radical way, making the whole of creation new. Jesus is king over creation because he subdues the enemies of God: evil, sin and the consequence of sin: death itself. Jesus’ kingship is demonstrated by the fact that after death on a cross he rises again to new life. And the Bible even attests to Jesus’ ascension to heaven where he sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Jesus is not just the King of the Jews; he is King of Creation the everlasting King whom Gabriel foretold and who ushers in a universal reign of justice and peace.
Well, that’s a very nice story, I hear you say. But where is this world of justice and peace? It has seemed very far during 2016. It that’s a very good question indeed. And one to which the infancy narratives of the Gospel answer with one final thought. If Jesus is a king who reigns through the power of love and service, you won’t find him by watching the news channels which prefer to focus on the bad kings who blight our world, on their wars and intrigues and power games. Jesus was not like them, born in a palace; there was no press conference to announce to a waiting world the good news of his birth. Instead he was born in a stable, under the radar of the great powers, invisible to those who have eyes only for the spectacular. Jesus is the King who holds a broken and suffering world together, making his power felt in everyday life, in the simplicity of love shared in the family, in ordinary service lived out in the local neighbourhood, in humble expressions of friendship, forgiveness and fidelity. I believe that all people of humble heart have met him, in fact they know him quite well, though perhaps without knowing his name. And that is why I believe that we can all of us, Christians, Muslims, the whole world, celebrate this Christmas with joy and with hearts full of gratitude to God for the great gift of Christ Jesus.