About 3,300 years ago, Moses died on Mount Nebo, as a symbolic punishment. I have been to the spot and looked out at the land of Israel from afar, just what Moses would have seen. (A picture I took is above.) It was a hazy day, making it difficult to see everything.
The death of Moses occasioned the rise of his disciple Joshua (Hebrew “Yeshua”) who was commissioned to lead the Jews finally into this mysterious land of Canaan beyond the Jordan, their inheritance by Divine right. Joshua leads a ruthless campaign against the pagan occupiers of the land. (Here is where many of those “difficult” passages of Scripture are found…) The point of the violence is to drive out idolatry from the new home of God’s Chosen People, lest they be tempted to go after other gods. The First Commandment is first for a reason: it is the most important. If you do not worship the one true God, your natural virtue comes to nothing – the fundamental orientation of your life is wrong. To safeguard from such egregious sin, Joshua is given this task of purification.
While Joshua destroys most of the idol cults, he does not succeed fully. A remnant of paganism remains, and this remnant will lead many Jews astray. The predominant goal of the Prophets is precisely to condemn this idolatrous activity, especially on the part of the Kings. Eventually, Israel’s unfaithfulness is so bad that the Temple is destroyed and they are kicked out of the land of Canaan, exiled to Babylon – a wake up call if there ever was one.
What does this have to do with Advent and Christmas?
With the end of the Old Covenants, the Old Law, and the prophetic tradition, characterized by the figure of Moses, there comes a New Joshua – Jesus. In fact, the name Jesus is actually just a different appropriation of the same name, Yeshua. The fierce battle cry of the mighty Joshua is no match for the gentle coos of the little Christ child. The pagan warriors of Canaan may have trembled at the one, but the demons trembled at the other.
When the mythological tradition of the Ancient Near East is recalling the death of the gods (winter), the God of Israel is being truly born. (Yes, I do think that December 25th is the correct date of the historical Nativity, just like Benedict XVI.) The one true God will later die in the spring while the pagan gods are rising, but He will rise too. He has conquered them. But sin continues… There is still a war to fight.
The ongoing battle of the new Joshua is not the exterior Canaan, it is the interior one. The Christ comes into our mysterious hearts and seeks to purify them of idols that lead us into sin and worldly attachment, even at the expense of our suffering. This war is fought with grace and love rather than swords and arrows, and if we do not surrender we will win a battle that condemns us to dwell on the Nebo of the hereafter, always looking at the real Promised Land, longing for it, and never being able to enter.
However, if we welcome the New Joshua to be born into the Canaan of our souls, and if we let Him do the painful work of purification, we will see the New Jerusalem clearly and enter in.
And that’s what Christmas is all about.
St. John of the Cross, pray for us.