Today, in liturgical Western Christianity, it is the 10th day of Christmas. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate the extended edition of the holiday!
Unfortunately, this essay is not a celebration of Christmas, but rather an explanation of why I have often found it disappointing recently in life, because of a disconnect between the promise and the reality.
Every time Christmas comes around, I think of a classical sacred choral piece that I’ve performed in multiple different choirs in youth and adulthood, from Mendelssohn’s Christus, namely “Es Wird ein Stern aus Jakob Aufgeh’n” (“There shall come a star out of Jacob”).
These are the words:
Es wird ein Stern aus Jakob aufgeh’n
Und ein Scepter aus Israel kommen;
Der wird zerschmettern Fürsten und Städte
The times we’d sung it in English, this was sung as:
There shall a star come out of Jacob
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel,
with might destroying princes and cities.
And, of course, the line about destroying princes and cities is sung loudly, calamitously, and – perhaps strangely – triumphantly. I remember having a discussion once with someone who was confused by this, but then suddenly got it: “Oh!! It’s a good destroying princes and cities!”
And the English “destroying” is too weak. Without the constraint of a singable text, I’d translate the German thus:
There shall arise a star out of Jacob
And a scepter shall come out of Israel
He shall shatter sovereigns and cities
Fürsten is normally translated “princes,” but means “princes” in the sense of “sovereign leaders of principalities” or “heads of state,” rather than in the more common modern sense of “sons of monarchs.”
This text is based off of a Bible verse, Numbers 24:17, where specific enemy nations of Israel are called out as those this “star” will destroy:
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab
and break down all the sons of Sheth.
- Numbers 24:17 ESV
Of course, like many things in the Hebrew Bible, Christians reinterpreted this text to be a Messianic prophecy about Jesus. Jesus made no literal war against anybody, let alone Moab and the sons of Sheth, so that line was reinterpreted as some sort of metonym, perhaps meaning “any power of this earth opposed to God’s people.”
In the Mendelssohn piece, the transformation goes further, and the text replaces the specific with the general: the star, the Christ, will “shatter princes and cities.”
This is seen as a good thing. The feeling that I have always gotten from this section of the piece is reminiscent of a leftist jubilantly speaking of “dismantling power structures,” but with much more poetic, less wonky language. The rulers and their strongholds will be shattered. The people who are currently in charge – and who are clearly responsible for many of the world’s problems due to their selfishness – will be violently set aside.
It is reminiscent of Jesus’s declaration that “the first will be last, and the last will be first,” or the similarly anti-rich and anti-powerful declaration in the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:51-53, Book of Common Prayer):
[God] hath shewed strength with his arm:
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
All of this is connected to Christmas in that Jesus, as the Christ, is supposed to be the “star of Jacob.” It is Jesus that is supposed to shatter the princes and cities, and Christmas celebrates his birth and coming into the world.
The problem, and the part that makes me sad when I think about this song, is that princes and cities still are around. And, unfortunately, they are as oppressive as ever.
Recently, in the US, we’ve had the particularly intense prince that is President Trump, and the city that was his version of Washington, DC. And throughout the world we have others: There is Vladimir Putin, and his well-fortified Moscow, protected with nuclear weapons rather than walls. There is Kim Jung Un in North Korea, and Xi Jinping in China. These figures come off like movie villains – or like the many evil sovereigns in the Bible.
And they all remain thoroughly unshattered. They’re still there, even though Christmas happened 2022 years ago, when Jesus was born to shatter them.
I could recite to you all sorts of standard Christian explanations for this: that the princes and cities have in fact been shattered, in a spiritual sense; that this is a process that happens over time through the church; and that the final, literal shattering will occur once Jesus returns.
But that honestly seems like a moving goalpost. The piece doesn’t say “a star shall arise and then set, and then arise three days later, and then eventually after thousands of years shall shatter princes and cities.”
In the early 20th century, the worldwide Communist movement tried to take matters into their own hand, and shatter the princes and cities by means of violent revolutions. But of course, they couldn’t shatter human nature. After the Tsar and the oligarchs were shattered, new ones arose. Stalin and Mao Tse Tung were even worse princes than those who came before them.
That is unfortunately how revolution usually goes. Given that, you can see why some feel the need for a divinely-appointed hero to come in and do the shattering, who will reign with justice afterwards rather than requiring another round of shattering in another couple decades.
But Jesus literally didn’t do that. And no one seems to be forthcoming. And if they were, they’d be more likely to be another Stalin than a “star of Jacob.”
The Mendelssohn is a beautiful piece, but now, it just reminds me of the evil princes and cities that remain unshattered. The promised shattering feels like just a fantasy.
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