Readings: Isaiah 9:1-6; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
The gospels, especially Luke, place the birth of Jesus in the wider context of what was happening in the world at the time. We are told that these events happened in the days of Herod, King of Judea (Luke 1:5). This was Herod the Great who, forty years before the birth of Jesus, had been declared ‘King of the Jews’ by the Roman Senate. A paranoid and ruthless man, he became renowned for his building projects, especially his restoration of the Temple at Jerusalem.
In relation to what was happening in Rome, Luke tells us that Jesus was born while Augustus was emperor (Luke 2:1). He was described as the prince of peace because under him war ceased, and there came about the pax romana also called pax augustana. It was Caesar Augustus who initiated this peace and so was called ‘saviour of the world’.
This is the background in Judaism and in Rome. We might be tempted to ask what was happening in other significant places in the world at the time of Jesus’ birth. What about Athens and philosophy, for example? That seems like an interesting question for us, who might be interested in philosophy, science and wisdom. The gospels do not tell us who Plato’s successor in the Academy at Athens was at the time of Jesus’ birth. It is likely that in fact there was no successor, the Academy having been destroyed, by a Roman general, about eighty years before the birth of Jesus.
But following Luke’s example in relation to Palestine and Rome, it seems like a legitimate thing for us at least to speculate about wisdom, knowledge, and philosophy, and to wonder how the birth of Jesus is to be related to those things, and how they were faring in the world. There are some hints about wisdom in the gospel passage that has just been sung (Luke 2:1-14). They are hidden in that simple statement by the angels to the shepherds, the sign they give to the shepherds, ‘you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger’ (1:12).
There is only one other place in the Bible where swaddling clothes are mentioned. It is in the Book of Wisdom, a text attributed to Solomon but actually written at Alexandria about a century and a half before the birth of Jesus. The passage in which swaddling clothes are mentioned is not really all that significant: the author is speaking about kings and how they are subject to the ordinary experiences of birth and aging and death. A new born king is placed in swaddling clothes and needs to be cared for in exactly the same ways as any other human infant (Wisdom 7:4). So not much about philosophy or wisdom but it establishes at least a tenuous link for us.
This link is strengthened in the reference to the manger. This was a feeding trough, a place where animals might find food. In Luke’s gospel there is a clear link between the manger at Bethlehem and the last supper. Bethlehem is the ‘house of bread’. The inn that had no room for the Holy Family (Luke 2:7) is named with the same term as is used for the room or boarding house where Jesus instructs his disciples to prepare the Passover (Luke 22:11). The last supper then becomes our Eucharist, in which we receive Jesus as the bread of life and the living bread. All of this links very strongly with wisdom, with the ways in which the Old Testament speaks about Lady Wisdom, going about the streets, inviting people to find shelter and sustenance with her, to come to her banquet of wine and eat her bread. That bread is the knowledge, understanding and wisdom that she has to offer, guidance for human lives, a true teaching, and so on. In the child who is born we see the fulfillment of such promises for he is God’s wisdom, feeding us with the Word of God and nourishing us with his Body and Blood.
There is another link between Bethlehem and philosophy: we can say that western philosophy began in a cave and that the Christian story also began in a cave (or a stable: in any case the shelter in which Jesus was born). Everybody who studies philosophy is told very quickly about Plato’s cave, his allegory about people sitting chained looking at images and shadows on a wall, thinking it is reality, then somehow one of them breaks free, turns around, finds his way back through the cave towards the light and out into the world. It is about reality and truth and the quest of philosophy to find truth and to live in the light.
With the birth of Jesus, we can say that Christian philosophy also begins in a ‘cave’, at Bethlehem. There are two striking contrasts, however, between Plato’s cave and the place of Jesus’ birth. One is that in Plato’s story the sun is outside and the one who seeks wisdom and truth must turn away from where he is and go searching for that light beyond or behind his immediate experience. With the birth of Christ, however, the Sun of Justice is found inside, in the cave. The Word is born for us in the midst of our darkness, in the place of our confusion and uncertainty and unreality. Wisdom has come to us to enlighten our darkness and lead us into truth.
The other contrast between Plato’s story and the Christian event is that the energy that moves Plato’s philosopher to search for truth is, as Plato says elsewhere, eros, a being captivated by beauty that stimulates and attracts and leads us on. For Judaism and Christianity it is God’s eros that originates things, takes the initiative and is the moving power of revelation and salvation. This may seem like a risky thing to say, to speak about God’s eros, but there is plenty of support for it in the Scripture readings we hear these days. On Christmas Eve we heard Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, proclaiming that it is ‘the tender mercy’ of our God that has brought about these events (Luke 1:78). And in the second reading at the Dawn Mass of Christmas Day, Isaiah re-assures us that we are a people ‘sought after, a city not forsaken’ (Isaiah 62:12).
The eros in us about which Plato speaks is also always at work, our desire for knowledge, understanding and truth, but its final destination is unclear. As Christians we believe that our desire is met by God’s eros, God’s love of humanity that has not only come to meet our desire but has also created it in the first place and sustains it.
The final part of the sign given by the angels to the shepherds is that they will find a baby. That this infant is our Creator is the wonder of Christmas often stressed by preachers and teachers. It has this significance also: that the Creator has entered into our way of growing in knowledge, understanding and wisdom. He is not just a visitor, a kind of otherworldly being who decides to spend some time with us and then returns to where he properly belongs. No, the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. God became human, taking on our nature, entering into our situation, and experiencing what an earlier generation of philosophers would have referred to as ‘the human condition’. He entered into our way of growing in knowledge, understanding and wisdom, and he grew up in our flesh. Luke later tells us this: that the child grew in strength, wisdom and grace (Luke 2:40, 52). He did this so that we might enter into his way of knowing, understanding and being wise. He came to establish this communion with us, sharing our way of growing in wisdom and grace and thereby introducing us to His wisdom and grace. Our love of wisdom, our philosophy, terminates in him, he is the destination of our desire for truth, and he is the knowledge we seek.
So just as we know that it is not Herod, but Jesus of Nazareth, who is really the King of the Jews, restorer of the Temple, and messiah of Israel, and just as we know that it is not Caesar Augustus, but Jesus Christ, who is really the saviour of the world and the prince of peace, so we know that knowledge, understanding and truth are ultimately found only in Him who is wisdom and the way to wisdom, the wisdom that comes from God to order all things sweetly, come to teach us the way of prudence.
This homily was preached at Blackfriars, Oxford in 2009