Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, great David’s greater Son!
Hail in the time appointed, his reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free;
to take away transgression, and rule in equity.
– James Montgomery, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” (1821)
In the darkness of Advent, the dawning of the gospel takes a particularly political shape. The threat of political oppression looms large throughout the Bible; nevertheless, God’s redeeming work turns out to be the work of a king. As today’s reading takes us up through Zechariah’s song – the Benedictus (its opening word in Latin) – we confront the explicitly political hope of the good news of the Messiah. In a world where injustice so often reigns, the hope God offers is not to deliverance from government, but to the reign of a good and faithful One. Many Christians have lost touch with the explicitly political form of our hope, and thus resorted to disembodied, individualistic expectations; while other Christians have lost touch by placing their hopes in particular human regimes.
In the wake of an unpredictable presidential race – with a wide arrange of unsettling or evil regimes worldwide – we are reminded that there is a king in whom there is light and life and love! Zechariah saw John the Baptist, his son, as the herald of this great king. No doubt, he could never have guessed how Jesus would accomplish his victory; but he understood more clearly than many of contemporary Christians that when God shows up he will dispel the darkness, drive out evil, and restore the good.
Even from Jesus’ birth, people have misunderstood his rule. He came humbly, he taught powerfully, and he died brutally – with a mocking sign over his head declaring his would-be kingship. But Jesus’ mission exploited and inverted the powers of this world. The King came into the world and redeemed it through his seeming defeat. Jesus came into the world in the middle of the reign of one of the most powerful emperors in history, and that empire did its worst to him. The most fearsome tool of governments has always been their power to take life, yet Jesus took it back up – and he will give it back to all who trust in him. He ushered in a kingdom – not of this world, yet no less real – more powerful in its reach and ultimate in its achievement than any emperor could ever dream.
On Christmas Eve, we rehearse the anticipation that the King is coming! We look back to the anticipation of Jesus’ birth and forward to the time his rule will be fully realized. When we greet each other with “Merry Christmas,” we also imply a prayer: “Come, O Redeemer, come!”
Rev. Jeremy M. Mullen is Harvard’s chaplain for the Presbyterian Church in America and an advisor to Harvard Undergraduate Fellowship.