After a wonderful late lunch at a quaint pizzeria in downtown Wooster, Ohio, the family and I went to see The Nativity Story. It is a movie I highly recommend; the acting is quite competent and believable, and the script is superior and moves along with interest.
What caught my attention the most was how well the social, political and economic situation was portrayed throughout the movie, particularly in the first half. Here were first century Jews living literally hand-to-mouth, spending most of their waking hours planting, tending, producing, and preparing food. People working just to have something to eat and having to give too much of it to the Romans in taxes; those who could not pay suffered the consequences.
In the middle of this difficult scene of ancient Galilean life, comes the announcement to a young maiden that she will bear the one who will offer deliverance. When one sees such bondage to poverty and political forces, one understands in a new and different and stark way, what Mary truly means when she sings in Luke's Gospel, "He has filled the lowly with good things, but has sent the rich away empty." There is no spiritualizing this proclamation into "pie-in-the-sky in the sweet by-and-by" kind of theology that focuses only on the future heavenly bliss and not on the pain, misery, and injustice suffered in the present. When Mary sings of this hope that kicks in her womb, her very way of life, revealed in rugged, calloused hands, and hard labor from sunrise to sunset, will not let us get away with trivializing her words into other-worldly nonsense. This Messiah has come to deliver in every way imaginable.
As the movie opens depicting these scenes of dearth, the music of one of my favorite Advent songs is played:
O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel; that mourns in lonely exile here...
When Mary wished for the coming of Emmanuel, it was very clear what she expected. She expected a this-worldly Savior who would deliver her in this world. She did not deny the resurrection at the last day; like all faithful Jews, she looked forward to it. But she also knew that what God had promised to do was to bring deliverance in the here and now. If all Jesus' birth was about was some future salvation in the world to come, then why did Herod the Great perceive this young king as such a threat? If all Jesus' ministry was about was a heavenly existence after death, why did the authorities string him up on a cross for treason? Emmanuel came to Mary as one who would make a difference in the present moment. A Messiah born into an unjust world, would seek to bring justice to those so oppressed.
When we sing "O come, O come Emmanuel," what do we hope he will do? How do we wait for Emmanuel, we who do not suffer from having too little, but from having too much? How do we wait for Emmanuel as those who worry not about providing the basics for our families, but rather fret that the gifts we have bought are appreciated? How do we wait for Emmanuel as those who will flock to the stores the day after Christmas to return all those gifts we received, but don't want? How do we wait for Emmanuel as those who eat too much and exercise too little? How do we wait for Emmanuel?
Just as important to consider: how does Emmanuel come to us? Does he come to deliver us from the rich and powerful, those of us who are wealthy by more than two-thirds of the world's standards? Does he come to deliver us from our little sins, the one's we don't mind being freed from? Does he come to deliver us from our whining over the difficulties in our job, when we could be unemployed? Does he come to free us from our debt, even though we cannot refrain from charging the plastic to the hilt? How does Emmanuel come to us?
Perhaps the same Emmanuel who came to Mary must come to us in a different way. Whereas Emmanuel came to free Mary from her poverty, perhaps he comes today to deliver us from our plenty. Whereas Emmanuel came to deliver Joseph from an oppressive power, perhaps he comes to free us from our power over others. Whereas Emmanuel came to free his family from the stigma of being poor, perhaps he comes to us to deliver us from the self-righteousness of place and prestige. Perhaps this Emmanuel, this Jesus is capable of delivering all of us from the many different kinds of bondages that enslave us.
Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel!