When the angels sang at the birth of Jesus, it was not the first time that the arrival of Israel’s future ruler was heralded by thousands of voices lifted as one. It wasn’t even the first time the arriving ruler was named Jesus.
Jesus was preceded by nearly 1400 years by a newly minted leader named Joshua; the Hebrew form of the Greek name we know as Jesus. Both mean ‘the Lord saves.’ And while the similarities are striking, their differences are infinitely more significant than their parallels.
Joshua was heralded by a human army that slaughtered every man, woman, and child within earshot. Jesus was heralded by an angelic host who promised peace for everyone on earth within God’s favor. Joshua’s arrival delivered imminent death and destruction. Jesus’ arrival promised eternal life and divine blessing.
The connection may be lost today when one thumbs through the Gospels. But the contrast would have screamed from the scrolls held by any 1st century Jew familiar with history and longing for deliverance from the oppression of Rome. The Jews expected a war, and instead were surprised by peace.
Christmas proclaims peace, and yet Christians have surprisingly delivered war. We have somehow managed to craft a story of Christmas that more closely models the conquest of Canaan than the kenosis of Christ. Somehow, inexplicably, the message of the angels’ anthem has been lost in throaty battle cries.
We scratch and claw to perserve our right to erect tired nativity scenes. We wail when the White House sheds ‘Christmas’ from its tree. We clench our jaw, gritting out “Merry Christmas!” while martyring our materialistic impulses on the altar of any store that doesn’t follow suit (ie, boycott). We fawn over celebrities who voice our views, outdoing each each other in our haste to ‘like’ and ‘share,’ while relegating the promise of the angels to beauty queen cliche. And all the while we convince ourselves that this is the message of Christmas. This is the reason for the season.
Our tireless toil to maintain the majority rule has marginalized Jesus’ minority report of peace. Our voices have muted the angels’ anthem. We’ve trampled peace in our mad rush to preserve our place in the public square. We’ve been so focused on ensuring that the story endures that we never noticed we’d begun to tell a different one.
There is but one Christmas story. It is the one about the God who is in the manger. It is the one that flips conquest on its head, giving us frailty over omnipotence, poverty over wealth, obscurity over notoriety, chorusing angels over shouting soldiers, peace to those in God’s favor over peace to those who are most deserving.
The Christmas story has always been about peace, never about winning.
The difference between Jesus and Joshua is simple: Jesus sacrificing everything to give peace to humanity. Joshua gained everything by devoting death to God.
The second week of advent compels us to forsake the way of Joshua and follow in the way of Jesus. Advent reminds us that just as the birth of Jesus ushered in peace, so should our celebration of his birth give peace. Advent reminds us that when a great company of the heavenly host appeared, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,”
they meant it.
So should we.