In the third grade in 1972, our class at Trinity School was all boys. We, along with the younger boys and the fourth grade above us, formed ourselves in single file – “Chapel Line” we called it; shortest to tallest – as we marched down the length of the sanctuary in the Upper School building on West 91st and Columbus Avenue.
As we walked, we carried three-inch candles with rounded cardboard quillions to protect our pink hands from the melting wax. One eye made sure our flames didn’t either burn us or ignite the blue blazer of the boy in front and the other eye watched for the steps and stage ahead, and we made our way down the aisle, sandwiched by parents and grandparents smiling at us like a wedding procession, as we sung:
Once in royal David’s city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child…
A touching Christmas scene (at the school and in the hymn), as seemingly innocuous as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Yet, two days before Christmas, I read of an account in the Bible that includes royal David, two at-war sons, incestual rape, and a mysterious wise-woman with a parable. It is not a Christmas tale so much as a Christmas declaration.
The short version of the story is that King David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar. Absalom, Tamar’s brother, avenges her and kills Amnon. Absalom flees and doesn’t see David for three years. David longs for his son, because he has dealt with Amnon’s death, yet he does nothing to reconcile himself to Absalom. An advisor to David secretly arranges for a “wise woman from Tekoa,” whose name we never learn, to go to the king and tell him a parable. We have seen before – with Nathan confronting David about his plot to murder Uriah so he could Uriah’s wife Bathsheba as his own – that a parable usually disarms the man. In the end, the wise woman and the advisor convince David to recall his son Absalom to Jerusalem. Yet it is still some time that the two men see each other and reconcile. The men reconcile briefly, but then – after his plot to usurp the throne – Absalom is killed by the government’s men. David is inconsolable over his death.
In the interview she has with David to challenge him to reconcile with Absalom, the wise woman says, “God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.”
This is the Christmas declaration, in a sentence, from a woman with no name, buried in 2 Samuel 14:14.
You and I were “banished persons,” kept apart from the King because of our sin. We were the King’s enemies, murdering, raping and stealing from our siblings with our thoughts. And yet, the King devised a way so that we – the banished – would not remain estranged from him.
He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor, the scorned, the lowly,
lived on earth our Savior holy.
And though Absalom was ultimately killed for his rebellion, we were saved despite our own and reconciled with the King. It was Jesus, instead of us, who was killed by the government’s men for our rebellion.
When Jesus was born into the world, God stormed the beaches at Normandy. It was a “devised way” with the strength of a million D-Days yet the fragility of an orchid. Through the love, single-mindedness, and agreement of the Trinity – the Father sending, the Son obeying, the Spirit counseling – a plan was sprung on Christmas morning in a “lowly cattle shed” that allowed us to become children of the King through the work on the Cross some thirty years later.
And it was a declaration: we are heirs of the kingdom.
No longer enemies.
photo: Plamen Stoev