For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his
shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the
everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
This statement comes from what we might regard as the longest story ever told. Most
scholars would date Abraham to the nineteenth century B.C.E., roughly, and the Exodus from
Egypt to the thirteenth. This means that if we take Abraham to be its founder, Judaism is
almost four thousand years old. If we take the Exodus to be its Declaration of
Independence, it is over three thousand years old.
It was remarkable enough that this people retained their distinctive identity through the
difficulties that followed the Exodus--through the wilderness, through the conquest, and
especially through the disorganized period of the judges. A confluence of circumstances
that we can only regard as providential enabled them to become a significant nation for a
relatively brief span of time, during the reigns of David and Solomon; and then, like all
the empires of all the ages, they fell.
Unlike "all the empires of all the ages," though, they did not lose sight of their dream.
Their prophets looked beyond the disaster to a restoration, and when circumstances changed
in their favor, they gathered again in Jerusalem. Ultimately the Romans would drive them
out again, and Judaism would become scattered throughout the Western world, until in our
own times, in response to the holocaust, the Western nations "played Cyrus" and enabled
the establishment of the modern nation of Israel.
We must presume that other nations of ancient times had their dreams as well. Certainly
there are plenty of texts in which kings or emperors claim special divine favor, texts in
which, for example, the ascendancy of the city of Babylon is seen as a sign that the
tutelary deity of the city, Marduk, has been made executive head of the pantheon. The
contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal recorded in First Kings eighteen presumes
that those prophets claimed that Baal was supreme. On the basis of political and military
power, there was every evidence that the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia were greater than
the god of Israel.
Yet they, to all intents and purposes, have vanished from the scene, and the God of Israel
is still worshipped. Why? Does this perhaps prove that this is the true God, and that all
the others were false or illusory? That would be a risky conclusion to draw, since it
would make our faith dependent on earthly circumstances. If we extended the principle
consistently, we would find ourselves with the impossible task of balancing the claims of
Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism and Christianity on the basis of their survival or their
We should rather, I believe, look at the quality of the dream itself. I suspect that
Judaism has survived because it has a truly viable vision, that it holds forth a way of
living together that actually works. In the midst of all its militarism--and we should not
forget that "the Lord of hosts" means "the Lord of armies"--there is the recurrent theme
of righteousness. In our text from the prophecy of Isaiah, this theme comes to the fore,
and the ideal king of the golden future is portrayed not as a warrior but as a counselor,
a father, and as "the prince of peace."
At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of that prince. Isaiah had prophesied that there
would be no end to the increase of his government and peace. The message of the angels to
the shepherds was "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to those of good
will." The Hebrew word translated "salvation" was most commonly used to refer to
deliverance from external enemies, and could often be translated "victory." The name of
Israel's great general Joshua means approximately "the Lord is [our] salvation" or "[our]
victory," and Joshua certainly lived out his name in its military sense. Both Matthew and
Luke have an angel bring instructions that Mary's child is to be named Jesus, which is the
Greek form of the name Joshua; and Matthew adds the detail that this is because he will
save his people from their sins.
Here again, in the midst of more materialistic expectations, the theme of righteousness
comes to the fore. The intent of this birth is not to save us by means of violence but to
save us from violence. The dream is not one of military supremacy but of ethical
invulnerability. The dream is of the peaceable kingdom, where the wolf lies down with the
lamb and the lion and the ox feed together, where there is no hurt or destruction.
Ultimately, the dream goes beyond righteousness to love, beyond obeying laws that prohibit
the worst to an active seeking of the best.
"And a little child shall lead them." As the Lord made vividly clear by precept and
example, the essence of peace and security is to be found in innocence. This may in fact
be one of the most distinctive features of Christianity, that its notion of divinity
includes the image of infancy, that we can and do worship before a manger, a cradle, as
well as before a throne.
What we see in the manger scene, though, is only the beginning of our salvation from our
sins. This prince of peace would later say that he had not come to bring peace, but a
sword. In Swedenborgian terms, it is a difficult journey from the innocence of infancy to
the innocence of wisdom, a journey that seems to take us far from innocence along the way.
It seems in fact that part of growing up involves turning our backs on innocence. There
are certainly substantial stretches of adulthood when naivete, the twin sister of
innocence, is shunned like the plague.
Our theology is admirably sane and practical about this issue. The innocence of infancy,
it tells us, is the innocence of ignorance. Quite simply, we are innocent as infants
because we don't know any better. We do not put our interests ahead of the interests of
others because we haven't learned to distinguish our interests from those of others. To
put it another way, as infants we were utterly trusting. This meant that we allowed our
parents to make our choices for us. What the Lord wants, though, is that we ourselves
choose to trust, and we cannot make that choice as long as we allow others to make our
choices for us. So birth launches us on the path from innocence into self-assertion, a
path designed to lead through self-assertion to trust.
In a way, then, we do not worship the infant in the manger. To be theologically correct
about it, we worship the risen and glorified Christ. However, we are to see in that risen
and glorified Christ the innocence of the infant, the utter harmlessness, the freedom from
fear--in a word, the peace. That is the message of Christmas, when our vision is the other
way around, when we see in the baby Jesus the life that is to triumph in the resurrection.
We see divine love coming down into our nature, into our helplessness. We see infinite
power visiting us in the least threatening way imaginable. In a very strange and perhaps
even disturbing sense, we see God trusting us, needing to be clothed and fed and cared
for, relying on our love of infant innocence to sustain his physical life.
At every stage of our lives, we are essentially and profoundly dependent creatures.
Whether we are homeless and destitute or fabulously rich and powerful or somewhere in
between, we are alike in our total dependence on the inflowing life that sustains us in
being. The Lord is the infinite source of that life. This means that there is something
intensely paradoxical about the manger scene, where we see infinite power lying helpless.
Let us come at the question from another side. We claim to believe that the divine is
absolute love and wisdom, totally and irrevocably devoted to our own best interests.
Theoretically, we have absolutely nothing to fear from our Lord. This, incidentally, is
one of the most powerful and most underestimated messages of near death experiences, that
in the light that sees every secret of our beings, there is no condemnation at all, only
understanding, compassion, and forgiveness.
But for us, power is intrinsically scary. Our experiences with power leave us cautious,
because we find out very soon that power can hurt. Small wonder that images of an
omnipotent deity trigger fear reactions. It is awfully hard for us to put majesty and
innocence together, the infant Jesus and the glorified Christ.
Yet, our theology tells us, that is exactly what we are supposed to do. What we see in the
manger scene is that quality of the divine which is hardest to see on an infinite scale.
Infinite power is infinitely innocent. Infinite power is infinitely peaceful.
Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, sang of the visitation of the dayspring from on
high which would "guide our feet into the way of peace." We try to achieve peace, it
seems, by trying to become stronger than the forces we see as threatening us. This is one
way of reading the Darwinian message of the survival of the fittest. Another scientist,
though, Lewis Thomas (who died only last week), took a different view. As he saw things,
no species survived unless it contributed to the well-being of the whole system.
The moment we stop to think about it, this is absurdly clear. Our individual chances for
survival are immeasurably enhanced when our community values us and wants us to survive.
Our chances for survival are immeasurably diminished when we threaten the community,
giving it reason to think that it would be better off without us. The ancient dreams of
national supremacy that involved "our god" defeating "other gods" failed because they were
inherently impractical. The prophetic dream of the peaceable kingdom survived because it
is inherently practical.
We have a long way to go. We are far from able to frame a foreign policy on the principle
of innocence or to design an economic system around a principle of compassion. Yet every
year, Christmas comes and reminds us of the ideal, of the dream. Every year, we are drawn
to the thought that the baby in the manger is the Lord visiting us, that innocence is
For a moment, think back into those times. The "important people" were the Caesar, Herod,
the high priests, the Roman army. Anyone at all practical would say the same thing. Now
only scholars know which Caesar this was, who Herod was, who the high priests were, or
what the Roman army was like. Millions of people know about this child. Who were the
Who, then, are the practical people today? By common wisdom, they are the ones who regard
Christmas as a romantic episode only, with no real relevance to the hard facts of everyday
life. According to the wisdom of innocence, though, the practical people are the ones who
refuse to be deceived by these so-called "hard facts," but hold fast to a recognition that
ultimately, national security and prosperity are inseparable from justice and compassion,
that until innocence rules supreme, no one is safe. There is no other prince of peace.