Dec. 5, 2021
Second Sunday of Advent, Year C
Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11
This week, churches, piazzas and living rooms all throughout Italy will host their annual unveilings of Nativity Presepi, or manger scenes. The word comes from the Latin prae (“before”) saepes (“the fence”), and to stand before the fence of an Italian manger scene is to be struck with awe and wonder. They take their crèches to the next level.
In fact, so much so that my initial impression of them was that they were a bit “busy” — which is a nice way of saying that they are cluttered beyond compare. It is as if they buy every figurine in the catalogue and stuff them into their Nativity scenes. They include things like carpenter’s workshops, and people washing clothes, and water wheels, and butchers, and bakers, and candlestick makers. There is so much going on in these scenes that it is often actually hard to find Jesus. He is never in the center. The whole thing feels a bit like a religious version of “Where’s Waldo?”
But eventually, I came to realize the genius of what these crèches are saying: that Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, came into our world, and nobody in Bethlehem knew it, except a couple of poor shepherds, an ox and an ass.
The opening lines of our Sunday Gospel this week speak at length of all who were in power at the time when John the Baptist began to proclaim his message of conversion and preparation for the imminent arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. The inventory not only grounds the account in the particulars of real history, but also serves as a kind of “catalogue of the corrupt” who wielded power at the time of Christ.
So, for example, we hear that Tiberius Caesar was emperor of the Roman Empire at the time. In the “Annals” of Tacitus and in Suetonius’ “Lives of the Caesars,” we learn that Tiberius, nicknamed Biberius (from the Latin bibere, “to drink”) for his propensity to indulge in excessive libations, was “infamous for his cruelty,” known for his unparalleled public debaucheries, and ultimately met his end by being smothered to death in bed.
Pontius Pilate, meanwhile, was governor of Judea. Philo of Alexandria describes him as one known for insulting people, violently seizing property, murdering the untried, and for his general insolence, cruelty and inhumanity.
The tetrarchs, Herod Antipas, Philip and Lysanias, were a motley crew of their own: Herod conniving to steal and marry his niece Herodias from her husband (and his half-brother) Philip, and Lysanias by his very name (which means “ending sorrow”) providing perhaps a glimpse of the overall bleakness of the time.
The priests mentioned were no better. According to Josephus, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas were both, in the end, deposed for wicked acts.
It is in the midst of this milieu that John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness, and Christ ushers in the New Exodus. To the rulers of the day, both would have seemed inconvenient annoyances from backwater territories — amusing garnishes for their festival platters, as was John’s notorious fate, but ultimately part of the rabble not worth taking seriously from beyond the fences of their palaces.
And yet Christ deposed them all — the kings and the priests alike. Lost in the mix, he emerged to gather the huddled masses from which he’d sprung. And he did so with nothing more than the sword of his Word, which was True.
“Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God.” (Baruch 5:5)
As you put up your own crèches this year, remember that you are remembered by God. He is in our midst, even today, quietly reigning, though it seems not so. We, as a Church, can be “confident of this, that that one who began a good work in [us] will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
And as he does so this Advent, he gives us this prayer of St. Paul the Apostle to be prayed over each of us in our own small corners of the Presepe this world is: “that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:9-11)