Over the weekend people of faith will gather in churches and living rooms – around altars and evergreens – and read the Christ birth narrative from the second chapter of Luke. The story begins with these words: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (2:1).
I wonder in this year filled with the rhetoric of politics if the church will be able to hear and be disturbed anew by Luke the insurrectionist?
Luke’s story of Christmas is set up in chapter one by two highly revolutionary songs. Mary, the mother of Jesus, sings about how this one she carries not only will but already has, “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:52-53). His relative Zechariah sings about how God has, “raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David” (1:69).
With these songs of rebellion still ringing in our ears, Luke begins by naming the days as those belonging to Emperor Augustus. Of course, Emperor (or Caesar) Augustus wasn’t his real name. His given name was Gaius Octavius. Caesar and Augustus are titles of honor and authority given to a great ruler who for forty-one years brought stability, prosperity, and peace to the empire. The adopted son of Julius Caesar, Augustus had become the model of leadership. From his time in glorious power on, all Roman emperors would live in the shadow of Augustus. The days of their reign would always be compared to the majestic “days of Emperor Augustus.”
These were such good days for the average Roman that they bestowed “god” status to Julius Caesar and conferred such titles to Octavius as August, son of a god, savior of the nation, lord of the world, and prince of peace.
As is the case with all empires, their glory days weren’t glorious for everyone. This empire had exiles, an underclass, people who existed at the margins – today we would call them refugees. The Jews of the first century were perceived by the empire as a problematic group of people who practiced an odd and sometimes violent religion. The Hebrew people’s strict monotheism made them appear to be quaint and anachronistic compared to the modern, progressive, and more intellectual forms of polytheism that had led the state to such heights of military power and economic prominence.
Of course the Jews themselves were not unified. Some wanted to tone down the more demanding edges of faith and find ways to thrive within the civil religion of the empire. Some wanted to find secure places in the desert – away from the paganism of the urban centers – in hopes of being left alone to practice holiness in isolation. Some lived openly pious lives – dressing oddly, praying publically, demanding their religious liberty – expecting that God would see their faithfulness and undo the power of Rome. Others took their zealousness to extremes and used any measures and methods available to create terror for the empire.
When empires don't understand a people they tend to paint them with a broad brush and simply deal with them generically. Usually the best way for an empire to handle religiously odd refugees is to make decrees and laws that register them, destabilize them (keep them moving), control their population growth, violently make an example of zealous rebels, and reap whatever benefits you can from them through labor and taxation.
It is into this marginalized camp of refugees that a child is born. It is to this distrusted conglomeration of religious misfits that a Son is given.
Don’t miss all the seeds of insurrection in Luke’s story: a miraculous birth, messengers brining divine validation, politically stirred up peasants (shepherds), and all kinds of seditious language – a savior, a messiah, a Lord, the world’s true instrument of peace.
For Luke, in Bethlehem a cosmic battle has begun. Unlike Matthew, who makes the birth narrative of Jesus a fight for kingship and lordship among the Jews with Herod as the antagonist, Luke places the significance of the Christ child in the context of “all the world” and makes the antagonist not just a regional governor but he pits king Jesus against the greatest emperor in the history of the civilized world.
Of course, Luke’s Gospel will not only undermine allegiance to the empire, but as the story goes on, Jesus will also subvert the subverters.
Jesus will never shy away from the language of “kingdom.” It is a mistake to say the gospel is not political. Augustus cannot be the emperor of our bodies and Jesus the king of our soul. The world and our lives within it (body, soul, and spirit) can have only one true ruler.
But the way of Christ’s kingdom is unfamiliar and peculiar. Augustus redeems through conquest. Jesus redeems through sacrifice. Augustus enacts swift retribution on Rome’s enemies. Jesus invites disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. Augustus remakes the world through power. Christ brings a new creation through love. Augustus makes peace through the threat of the sword. Jesus brings through embrace of the cross.
This is hard news for refugees and exiles to hear. Not just hard but perhaps even unfair. After watching a special report on the indiscriminate bombings taking place in Aleppo and the intentional targeting of civil relief workers who come in to try and find those trapped in the remaining rubble, I found myself physically sick and emotionally enraged. I even found myself partially sympathetic to the young Turkish assassin who killed the Russian ambassador in an act of futile revenge for the thousands of children who have died in the devastated Syrian city. Overcoming evil with good is not in our nature. It is something that only the Spirit of God can empower a people to do. As Luke will go on to tell the story, it requires a people to make their hero Stephen and not Samson.
My fear for those like myself, who are more closely connected to the empire than to its refugees, is not that the subversive message of Christmas is difficult or hard to hear, but that it is impossible to hear. It’s not that we who dwell in places of relative privilege don’t want to hear it. It’s that we simply are unable to hear it.
I fear that my imagination has been so immersed in and shaped by words like “bigly” that I don't know how to imagine a savior who emerges from Bethlehem. The subversiveness of Christmas is hard to grasp when you live in a nation led by millionaires and billionaires on both the left and right (not because they take power but because they are given power – which by the way says more about us than it does about them).
There is for me, however, a slight glimmer of hope.
Most scholars date the writing of Luke between 80 and 90 CE (some as early as 60-65). If that is the case, then the original readers no longer had Augustus as their emperor. The readers at the end of the first century had not experienced the glory days of Augustus. Instead they had lived through the reigns of such legends of insanity as Caligula (37-41 CE) and Nero (54-68 CE); and they were now living in fear of the narcissistic persecuting zeal of either Titus (79-81 CE) or Domitian (81-96 CE). In other words, whatever hopes the first readers of Luke had placed in the emperor as a global savior and prince of eternal peace certainly had to be severely cracked if not utterly destroyed by then.
Maybe in a strange way at the close of 2016 that’s our hope also. Perhaps at the end of this year of divisive politics and ugly political rhetoric, even those of us who have been more formed by empire than by marginalization are exhausted and ready to place our hopes in an unexpected Lord with a revolutionary political agenda. Perhaps we are so worn-out from the inability of war to bring peace that we might be ready to embrace the cross. Perhaps we are so burned out from the divisiveness of Babel that we are ready to pursue the unity of Pentecost.
I am not optimistic. But I am a prisoner of hope.
As we prepare to gather around altars and evergreens, may the Spirit of God break through our holiday trivialities and give us the ability to hear anew the familiar revolutionary birth story that overturns us all.
Merry subversive Christmas!