Narratives are the way we communicate ideas and share memories. Quite frequently, after one person finishes a story, another person will add another memory or a parallel experience. History is created in this way, from the shared, accepted, and composite memories of a particular group of people who usually share a language, a culture and some common assumptions or biases. The Hebrew bible is an example of how a people remembered their own stories, while also borrowing from the stories and wisdom of other cultures, like Egypt and Mesopotamia.
In Advent, we are invited into the writing process of the gospel writers, whose sources would not likely have been their own experiences, but rather their own cultural history, their socio-political context, and whatever stories they had heard from original or early followers of Jesus.
With the hope they had in the social upheaval that would usher in a new world, they naturally looked back into the prophetic writings of Isaiah, writings they would have heard often in Jewish worship. Isaiah of course was addressing his own period of history, another time of upheaval, but in the rich writing of that scroll, the gospel writers found ways to talk about Jesus. Isaiah does not predict Jesus, but his poetic prophecy becomes material that is familiar and encouraging to the first Jewish Christians.
The gospel writers had some challenges. How could they explain Jesus as the messiah when he neither fit the description of the Davidic king to save Israel (see Ezekiel 34:23-29), nor did he compare to the power and presence of the Caesars? In the first instance, Jesus was not even the dramatic figure of John the Baptist who preached repentance, who chastised Herod (Mark 6:17-20), who thundered from the desert with the atavistic charisma of Mount Sinai and stone tablets. Instead Jesus preached compassion, inclusivity, and practised forgiveness and healing. He was the illegitimate son of a woman who had been hastily married to a kindly widower.
The Davidic messiah was to be a warrior priest and prophet to overthrow the oppressors of Israel. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of Israel, his response is either silence (Mark 15:5) or sarcasm. “If I were that kind of king don’t you think I would come with an army.” (John 18:36, Luke 23:4)
I think you can see the challenges for these writers who could not demonstrate with the living, charismatic, spiritual strength and vision of Jesus. The tools they had were poetry, metaphor, and narrative.
In Isaiah, they found the imagery of both the suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-52:12) and the compassionate healer (Isaiah 35:1-10), who would bring peace and change. To this day, we read Isaiah not as prediction but as hope for humanity, a vision we yearn to see fulfilled. Since the time of Jesus, for Christians, we acknowledge John’s teaching about turning away from injustice, but we follow the way of Jesus both as process and goal. However, we can still see how Christians are caught between John’s call to turn back to a more rigid standard, and Jesus’ command to look ahead without judging persons, but only institutions. John calls for an individual repentance; Jesus calls for systemic change.
Another natural question would be why an itinerant peasant should be someone to follow, even to die for. Matthew and Luke set the stage for their presentation of Jesus as the ruler of the human heart and will, by their comparisons with worldly rulers. The nativity stories are less about history and more about metaphor. The Caesars wanted to be perceived as demigods, divine rulers. With both the concept of the messiah and the righteous king, Matthew and Luke set a striking contrast to the Caesars. Augustus Caesar has armies; Jesus has shepherds and angels. Caesar brings peace by conquest; Jesus brings peace by reconciliation. Caesar wants to remake the world in his image; Jesus wants to remake the world in the image of God’s love, compassion and welcome to the poor and all the disenfranchised.
The powers of the time could not understand how Jesus was not leading a political revolution. Jesus’ followers were learning that political strategies are only tools, not ends in themselves. Jesus’ kingdom and kingship were seated in tolerance, welcome, and transformation, rather than thrones of weapons and gold. And his “officers” were a courageous young woman, fishermen, women caught in social conflict, men of conscience, but under threat. They had neither power nor influence. They had the story of their encounter with Jesus, and they had hope and faith. And that is what we have now, an opportunity to birth the story of compassion and healing.