Even though we lose track of in the glitter and sweetness of our celebrations, Christmas is intensely and insistently political.
It’s about who’s in charge.
Jesus was born in an occupied land and under the shadow of Rome’s Emperor. It was his decree that Mary and Joseph on the road on the night Jesus was born. Never mind that Mary was pregnant; the Empire called the shots, and it had no compassion for the vulnerable people among them.
The Emperor had imposed an uneasy peace on the Empire— a restless peace, the kind which exists when oppressed people are too afraid and too weak to revolt.
The Roman Senate fawned over the Emperor. They flattered him and declared him to be a god and the great savior of the whole world. Every year, on his birthday, in every nook and cranny of the Empire, they proclaimed: “The birthday of the god has marked the beginning of good news through him for the whole world.”
Emperor Augustus was god and gospel. There never had been a leader like the Emperor; he was making Rome great again.
Augustus seemed all-powerful, but God was quietly up to something which eyes blinded by might could not see and ears deafened by propaganda could not hear.
God was coming to earth, to live with human beings, to love us and to save us. God was coming, not as a regal rival to the Emperor Augustus, but as a vulnerable newborn. Jesus was, as far as the Empire could know, merely the son of nondescript nobodies: the left-over and left-out, people of low-status and low worth.
While the whole world knew about the power of Emperor Augustus; only a handful knew anything at all about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The only birth announcement was to shepherds in a nearby field:
“An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Don’t miss the subversive contrast between what the angel said about Jesus and what the Roman Senate had said about Augustus. The angel declared that Jesus was the good news, not the Emperor. Jesus was the Savior—not Augustus. Jesus was, and is, God’s chosen liberator to set people free from every kind of slavery. Jesus was, and is, is the gladness of God freely given to everyone.
The good news is not the Emperor in his grand palace; it’s the baby in a borrowed manger. It isn’t Rome’s vanquishing power; it’s the justice and mercy of the reign of God.
Not Augustus, but Jesus.
The angel said: “Do not be afraid.” It’s hard not to be.
The world seems to be ruled and run by presidents, prime ministers, supreme leaders and despots; by principalities and powers; by faceless multi-national corporations; by military might and economic wealth.
We feel trapped in endless cycles of wars and rumors of war. Many days, the headlines seem to be written in blood.
Nevertheless: “Do not be afraid.”
Those who seem to be in charge are not. The God we see and hear in Jesus is. Love is that God’s power; it is a love which will not rest until every wrong thing is made right, all God’s children have fullness of life, and the whole world is at peace—real peace, heavenly peace come to earth.
You might have mentioned that Bethlehem is, again, an occupied territory.
You’re right, Chris, for so it, tragically, is.