The following piece from Will O’Brien is in conjunction with the live streaming that will take place on Saturday morning from 9:30-11:30ET. Check back here on Saturday morning to watch Will’s lecture!
As the holidays approach, we prepare for the deluge of traditions, ceremonies, rituals, and sundry seasonal happenings. Among those traditions are the annual grievances by people of faith that the sacred character of Christmas is being hijacked and distorted. Well-meaning spiritual folks lament the pervasive consumerism. Conservative Christians rage against the creeping secularism that threatens to undermine the true faith.
As a practicing Christian, I share this concern over the “true meaning” of Christmas. I too rail against the cheapened versions of the sacred story that intermingle Santa Claus with the Christ child, the mall with the manger. I too want to “put Christ back in Christmas.” But I fear that those well-intentioned persons who insist on the religious integrity of Christmas are still dramatically missing the mark. Each year, as I sit in churches and hear the Luke and Matthew texts read amid liturgical pomp and solemnity, I am increasingly unsettled, unsatisfied, and grieved.
In recent years, as I have deepened my own reading of Scripture, I am convinced that the narratives of the birth of Jesus are among the most egregiously misread and misunderstood parts of the New Testament. Even in those rare cases when it manages to wrestle itself free of all the cultural trappings, the Church regularly accepts a distressingly domesticated version of what are downright incendiary political stories – stories that our world needs to hear in all their rawness and power.
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree, …” The opening words from the second chapter of Luke, with their almost iconic familiarity, evoke a warm feeling in us. What we miss is Luke’s pointed politically purpose in using Caesar’s worldwide census as the context for Jesus’ birth. The traditional reading of the text interprets the census as the narrative mechanism by which Joseph and Mary end up in Bethlehem, so that the prophecy of the Messiah’s birth can be fulfilled. But it’s hardly so innocent. Any original Jewish hearer or reader of the story, steeped in the biblical world, would have immediately detected a tension in the tale: 2 Samuel 24 recounts the odd and often forgotten story of the usually good King David doing something which turns out to be not so good. He decides to take a census of Israel – in response to which God gets furious and punishes him with and all Israel with plague. Part of the problem is that David’s census is clearly part of a consolidation of his military power. More broadly, the census represents an arrogant effort at imposing human control in defiance of God’s sovereignty.
It’s a persistent theme in the Hebrew Bible, and Caesar shows himself to be yet another in a long line of arrogant human monarchs. He dare thinks he can count – and by implication, control – the whole world! But the tension runs deeper still, and more historically immediate. Luke knows, as does his original audience, the ramifications of this particular census. Why would the emperor want such a count? For two obvious purposes: military conscription (just like David in 2 Samuel) and taxation. These are no less than the linchpins of the “pax romana, ” the vehicle by which the Roman empire imposed its control over conquered territories. That simple reference to a census evokes a politically freighted historical context: the Jews of Palestine at the time of the New Testament detested the harsh military rule and oppressive taxation of Rome. These were the catalysts for countless guerilla uprisings and militant resistance movements among nationalist Jews, as well as widespread public grievance. (Later, in chapter 3, Luke’s John the Baptist will specifically address two groups of persons: tax collectors and soldiers. He gives them ethical admonitions which function to slowly loosen the tentacles of empire.)
Luke further judges Caesar’s imperial pretensions by the poignant and painful detail of Joseph and Mary becoming virtual refugees, homeless, and in a precarious situation – the grassroots human suffering at the boot end of Rome’s supposed justice. But he doesn’t stop there. The politics of his nativity are further underscored by the appearance of angels to proclaim the birth. Here, the evangelist shrewdly wields language to tighten the screws of political tension: Those oh-so-familiar words – “good news, ” “peace on earth” “a savior is born” – are all brashly plundered from the Roman imperial lexicon. Again, we miss what would have been obvious to the original hearers of Luke’s story. Roman propaganda announced evangelion, “good news” as an official declaration of such significant events as a military victory – or the birth of a new emperor. The emperor himself was seen as a savior of the world, literally a son of God who brings peace and prosperity to all people.
And just in case we’ve missed the point, we are then presented with a “host” of angels – a Roman military term for a formal guard that might accompany the Emperor. But instead of court officials and the socially powerful hearing this evangelion, it’s one of the most socially marginalized groups possible – shepherds. (Don’t think quaint pastoral and idyllic figures, think low-paid non-union garbage works like the kind Dr. King came to Memphis to defend in 1968; think undocumented migrant workers; think sweatshop laborers in Hong Kong.)
Luke’s angelic proclamation is nothing short of political mockery of Roman imperial ideology. Moreso, through the entire narrative, Luke is throwing down a gauntlet to his readers: Who is the true savior of the world – purple-robe Caesar with his legions, or some poor infant from a displaced family born in a cave on the fringes of empire? Which of these two can truly bring peace to the world?
This version of the Christmas story speaks to a people under oppressive and violent rule. It prophetically exposes and delegitimizes the arrogant pretensions of Rome while declaring that a new saving and liberating power is on the scene. In the proclamation of the young Jewish maiden pregnant with Jesus (another Christmas text usually overlooked), God has “brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble; God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (1:52-53). A few chapters later (4:16-19), Luke will present Jesus giving his “inaugural address, ” outlining his alternative political program – that of the reign of God: good news to the poor, freedom for the captive, release to the oppressed, sight to the blind, a Jubilee of economic redistribution for God’s people. (Sounds like he learned his momma’s lessons well!) A far cry from the pax romana – but evangelion, indeed!
Far from the quaint Hallmark card version of the crèche scene that is foisted on us each year, Luke’s Christmas story is a call to allegiance: It challenges us to make a stark choice between the reign of Caesar or the reign of God. (All of which casts an intriguing light on another dangerously misunderstood text: Jesus’ choice in 20:25 between “rendering unto Caesar” or “rendering unto God.”) In which do we put our faith? Whose decrees do we honor and obey – those of Caesar Augustus or those of the Heavenly Parent of Jesus?
And that’s just Luke. If anything, Matthew’s birth narrative is an even more blatantly political piece of political agitation. It shares with Luke some elements from the tradition; the maiden Mary, betrothed to Joseph, finding herself pregnant. Being a more Jewish text than Luke, Matthew dwells more on the impending crisis and potential public scandal, which by religious law could result in stoning to death. Like his fellow evangelist, Matthew also recounts mediation by angelic visitations. But he likewise tells a tale of danger and displacement for the vulnerable family at the hands of political forces.
Here, King Herod is the lightning rod of political discontent. While the infamous story of savage state-sponsored killing of all children under the age of two in Bethlehem is not specifically corroborated in any historical record, the political machinations and violence are true to Herod’s character. Herod was a half-Jewish puppet king, installed by the Rome. Ruling from 74 to 4 BCE, he upheld Roman interests while enhancing his own privilege and power. He engaged in massive building projects, including expansion of the Temple and a royal palace (embellished with Roman architectural motifs, to the chagrin of nationalist Jews). His policies entailed massive taxation, with a resulting enmity from his subjects. The histories of Josephus make it clear that Herod was paranoid of opposition and brutal in crushing dissent. He put down several rebellions and operated a kind of police state with heavy internal security.
To escape the violence, Jesus’ family becomes political refugees. The story has a grim realism to it, which functions to judge corrupt and violent government. Citing a prophetic text of Jeremiah that portrays Rachel weeping inconsolably for her children, it moves the reader to solidarity with all victims of state terror. At the same time, it shrewdly evokes the tradition of Exodus, when the people of Israel experienced the primal liberation from oppressive imperial power.
A couple of millennia later, these tales from Matthew and Luke are still fiercely relevant. Our world today is no less rife with power-hungry Caesars and Herods wielding military and economic control to protect the interests of the elite while those at the bottom of the social rung struggle for survival. We too are bombarded with false ideologies promising ersatz security and peace – while ignoring the realities of the poor, the refugees, the displaced, the vulnerable. We too need a social vision that protects the lowly, feeds the hungry, empowers those on the margins, and brings good news to the world’s millions of poor children of God. The church desperately needs to read and grasp these stories – so we know how to proclaim and embody the way of Jesus for our broken world.
I have a grudging respect for those conservative religious folk who seek to protect Christmas from the heathens. But I fear that their efforts and their understandings seem vapid in the light of liberating vision of the biblical narratives. It’s one thing to fight for the legal right to have a crèche outside City Hall. But a more authentic reading of the evangelists would call us to fight for liberation of oppressed people from the bondage of modern-day Herods and Caesars.
That would be cause for true holiday cheer.