The challenge for the soldier at Christmas is to question his agency, and to reflect upon the birth of the Christ child as both the pronouncement of demise for those who intend to make war, and of salvation for those who suffer its symptoms.

In the beginning, God.

In the beginning, God created.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

It was before the beginning, impossible as that sounds, that the earth was void, without form, and dark. Then the Spirit of God moved, saying, “Let there be light!” And there became light, revealing form, and eating back the dark. We became by intent into this light and into order. This order is the preeminent taxonomy unto which the limbs of life are fixed, from which the branches of our being grow, and against which we have so often rebelled.

For the voices of the ancients tell us, we willed to be God.

And God introduced death, reminding us we were not him.

The ancients tell us also, we willed to have not God.

And God revealed himself, reminding us he would remain.

They tell us in hushed tones, we willed to kill God.

And we did.

What I share with you this evening comes with the knowledge of ongoing appointments to war. My hope is the reality of such appointments bespeaks upon their first impression a soft irony. It is during this month that we, the Christian and proverbial warfighter, lift from the prophet Isaiah’s oracle his envisioned child-king who is called Prince of Peace. We hail the infant Prince with tired carols that, when sang in the context of a silent night, bring nostalgia and make for the American church’s collective imagination a Christ so mild he need not leave the manger.

The ancients tell us we are mistaken.

While not wholly false, this first impression, if left unchallenged, blurs the real, and tempts us to make uniform the historical Jesus as one whose character fits comfortably within our own culture-made delineations. Avoiding this temptation, I will attempt here to re-craft Isaiah’s portrait of the Christ, so that it is both true to the circumstances of composition and yet not as foreign to the American military mind as is so often the case.

To begin, we revisit the oracle, that is, the Christ’s prophetic announcement, in the ninth chapter of the Book of Isaiah. I’ll divide this oracle into two parts. We begin with the first—that is, with the unfamiliar:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

And now the second part. The cherished:

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
[The government] rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace.

It would be remiss of me to circumvent the technical and not to present, however briefly, the historically contested exposition of Isaiah’s oracle as it functions within the book that bears the prophet’s name. To be sure, we cannot begin to feel for ourselves the gravity of this oracle if we do not recognize firstly that the appointment of Isaiah to prophecy, as in the case of all prophets, was to that, not of a fortune-teller, but of a biting critic, who both protested unjust rule and gave a strong political voice to the oppressed.

For Isaiah, whose prophetic office spanned that of several kings, his message was that there persisted immense wickedness in high and low places. This wickedness, so the prophet speaks, was soon to be purged upon the onset of a cosmic re-order entering world history as a candle into a cave. It this motif, the shift from blinding darkness to encroaching light, that pervades much of the book, appearing at the end of chapter 8 to provide the oft-quoted oracle its despairing thematic backdrop:

Now if people say to you, “Consult the ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter; should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of the living, for teaching and for instruction?,” surely, those who speak like this will have no dawn! They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their gods. They will turn their faces upward, or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.

For those who prefer light, who choose suffering over the frivolous speech of superstition, for them the darkness would lift, ushering in the final dawn. About the oracle’s politics, there is much ado in terms of form and style, which some have deemed common to other Near East enthronement traditions. For the critical, there is doubt whether the oracle is anything more than a hymn celebrating the then-accession of a now-dead Israelite king. But such a position speculates much, and its proponents take too great a liberty to speak where the author is silent.

This leaves us who are unconvinced of dissenting speculation to trust the canon and to receive its tradition. That the pronouncement of the child born to world rule is left unrealized until the angel appears to Joseph saying, “Son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife. For she will give birth to a son conceived of the Holy Spirit. They will call him Immanuel, which in Hebrew means God [is] with us.”

It is to us who have believed that the prophet speaks, and to whom the author of Isaiah writes. As it was with the Israelite who first heard the prophet’s words, and with the Jew who first received Matthew’s Gospel, so we, too, are moved with expectation for our era of salvation. But such expectation comes not without a call to discipline, a call to heed the promise of Immanuel in Isaiah, and later in Matthew, this expectation comes as the advent of lasting light illuminates the universal and burns away the darkness by means of liberation:

For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

The images of the warrior’s boots and bloodied garments are unfortunately absent from the carols we sing. But their function in this oracle is no less powerful, clothing the birth of the child-king not with swaddling rags, but with the language of apocalypse. This is where we find unfortunately for most an unbridgeable experiential gap between then and now. For at the enduring cost of being born free, the new American has lost the sensation of freedom borne. By the prophet’s word, we learn that becoming free has its unique sense impressions. He tells us freedom is the feeling of the yoke broken. It is the sound of the rod snapped. And it is the sight of bloodied garments, the smell of smoke, and a fire that never dies. Perhaps the sense impressions provided of this latter image, of bloodied uniforms feeding the flame, is no great stretch for some, nor perhaps will it be if the fruition of the notional proves eventful during future operations.

So with such uncertain ends busying our minds during holiday, how is it that Isaiah speaks to our role as soldiers? What is that he is saying? Ask and I will say it is that the occasion and anniversary of Christ’s birth was and is as much an occasion for terror as it is for celebration. It is assumed by the canonical witnesses that the Christ would come to enact the physical rule and reign of God upon the earth. This reign would be initiated by an episode of tremendous wrath, levied upon those who do wicked and who prefer chaos to order, dark to light.

The challenge, therefore, for the soldier at Christmas is to question his agency, and to reflect upon the birth of the Christ child as both the pronouncement of demise for those who intend to make war, and of salvation for those who suffer its symptoms. Know the two are of the same message. Judge rightly the motive of your participation, and understand that anticipation for an all-conquering peace brings any agent of war into sharp tension with his and her mode of profession. From this tension I provide you no relief.

Instead remain. Remain with me and wonder whether at judgment we will relinquish the bloody garb as a slave his shackles, or if we will be stripped of our trophies and passed through the flame. Wonder how apocalyptic fires feed upon the mighty. Wonder that if we look upon ourselves through the lens of Advent, we are at best unfortunate exceptions in the realm of a transitory national necessity, subject eventually to either defection or defeat. For to hail the Prince of Peace is to betray all other allegiances, and any manner of resistance to his coming is but a match to the growing flame. The only alternative is to remain in a stubborn dark which, if not betrayed, betrays us, and in whose spaces we will grope for the frivolous until the cocoon around us swallows its moth.

Anticipate Immanuel. And so welcome defeat.

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The featured image is a photograph of American Soldiers of the 84th Division in Belgium, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Picryl.

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