The Audacity of Christmas
The central rubric of Jesus’ teaching and ministry was announcing the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. We tend to over-spiritualize this, interpreting it to mean the arrival of a new supernatural order. The details of that matter are for another essay.
Yet regardless, Jesus clearly understood God’s Kingdom as a real, concrete, earthly reality with social, cultural, economic, and political ramifications. This is clearly how the early Christians understood it, and lived it, as well.
The Kingdom of God was deliberately contrasted with Imperial Rome, the global superpower of Jesus’ day, and the empire oppressing Judea at the time. Rome kept the peace, most of the time, but they did so through rough and often brutal means. Excessive taxes, few rights, harsh punishments for even slight offenses, and disdain for the poor, lowly, and outcast.
Roman values were peace through conquest, the privilege of the elite, plutocracy, and subjugation, violence, marginalization, slavery, oppression, patronage, the use of sex as a tool for humiliation and domination — the ancient classical world was brutal, violent, lacking in mercy, and contemptuous of the poor and lowly. The legions were always ready when needed.
The social and economic arrangements under Roman rule were stringent and meager, centered on patronage schemes manipulating and exploiting the poor. Rome did not create hospitals, did not feed the masses, and turned a blind eye to oppression and violence.
Jesus taught and lived a message that was the inverse of Imperial Rome. The Kingdom of God preferred the poor and lowly. It cared for its members, even feeding them. It rejected violence and military conquests. It valued love, compassion, justice, and mercy.
The gospel writers understood Roman Imperial culture, particularly, the Roman Imperial narrative and the language it used to speak about itself.
All honor and glory to our Lord, the Son of God, victor, bringer of peace, and savior of the world.
– Inscription on a boulder on a Turkish hillside near Smyrna – honoring Augustus Caesar
Augustus was also virgin-born, a claim made for many outstanding men of the ancient world. In Augustus’ case, he was the son of Apollo, conceived by a snake sent by the god to his earthly mother.
Context matters. Knowing the world and narratives Jesus was born into helps us make sense of his life and teachings, as well as the claims of the early Christian communities.
Many of the claims about Jesus were made to cast sharp contrast against Roman Emperors. Other claims were intended to contrast Jesus with Moses and many of the Jewish prophets.
Today, in December of 2021, the gospel birth narratives found in Luke and Matthew glide over our ears when read. We interpret these carefully, and beautifully, crafted complex accounts all too easily and usually rely on high theological concepts such as the incarnation and Word-made flesh.
And those interpretations aren’t wrong, but they do often lead us to miss out on other radical, audacious claims made by the same texts.
Christmas from the perspective of the early Christians was subversive. It was meant to be, and the telling of Jesus’ birth was intentionally told subversively as well.
The questions in the minds of the writers of the nativity narratives seem to be — what was the spiritual significance of Jesus? Where do we find God? How is Jesus not like Caesar and how is the Kingdom of God not like Imperial Rome?
Their nativity narratives, read correctly in the context of their day, would have sparked outrage, derision, mockery, and perhaps even fear on the part of non-Christians.
Consider the virgin birth. The claim may have to do with Mary’s physical and biological standing, but it also has to do with the status of Jesus.
To first-century ears, the radicality of the claim of Jesus’ virgin birth wasn’t that Jesus was born of a virgin. First-century ears were used to hearing about virgin births. Rather, it was that Jesus, the poor, itinerant preacher, crucified by Roman power, was born of a virgin. It’s akin to telling Rome where to shove it.
Those living in the empire of Rome who heard that Jesus was born of a virgin would have heard it as a challenge to Roman power.
The citizens and subjects of Roman Imperial rule viscerally understood where power and authority resided. In palaces, in Rome, with the emperor, among the elite and wealthy, and the legions they controlled.
Emperors were deified and grand, heroic narratives were constructed about them. And these narratives and tales were extensions of the meta-narratives of Rome itself as found in the Iliad and Aeneid – the sacred stories of the Roman Empire, eventually replaced by the gospels.
The core interpretative narrative in the Iliad was that all glory belonged to Rome who through war and military power pacified the ancient world, bringing “peace” through conquest.
Now watch what the gospel writers do. Where does the Kingdom of God start? Where is it located? Its origins are in the mud in a rural backwater, among barnyard animals. To whom are the divine Imperial greetings announced? Dirty, poor, smelly shepherds out in the cold fields.
Where do we find the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Master of All, including Caesar? In a baby, in a cattle shed, out in the cold, born to a nobody father and his teenage wife.
Luke certainly knew how to tell an audacious and subversive story. How all too often we gloss over Mary’s words in the Magnificat, rendering them harmless and thereby missing the point.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.
-Mary in Luke, 1:51-53.
The sweet, innocent virgin isn’t taking any prisoners. Mary and her cousin Elizabeth are radicals. Their children will usher in a new order that will subvert and replace the Roman Empire. Their offspring will bring down Imperial rule and turn the world upside down. These are dangerous women.
To Roman and classical ears, these accounts were scandalous, outrageous, dangerous, and absurd.
As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth over the next few days, there is nothing wrong with gift-giving, lavish meals, holiday music, sparkling trees, and time with family.
But amid the festivities, try not to forget where the Kingdom of God first appears and to whom. The glad tidings to the shepherds likely sent a shiver down the Roman collective spine. And it was meant to.
Let us not lose sight of Christmas as audacious, Christmas as subversive, as radical, and even as treasonous. And let us ponder what Imperial spines find the message worthy of a shudder in our day.