Black Friday, which has become the semi-official beginning of the Christmas season, is behind us. Not being much of a shopper I had totally forgotten about it.
Then, on a husbandly mission to pick up a box of sandwich bags for my wife, I pulled into the Target parking lot. I had to park in the furthest reaches of the lot, traipse through the snow and slosh, but eventually reached my goal. My wife was happy when I got home, but remarked, “You forgot it was Black Friday.” Yep.
I console myself knowing that my little Black Friday adventure was nothing compared to the one those Magi made to Bethlehem to find Jesus. That’s the real reason for the season. Finding Jesus and celebrating the real Christmas.
The world turned upside down
As part of my Advent preparation for Christmas, I have been spending time with the nativity stories. Hidden in plain sight within Luke and Matthew’s accounts are inklings of the adult Jesus who turns the world’s standards upside down. The nativity stories, so adorably enacted on Christmas Eve by little boys dressed in bathrobes as shepherds and little girls decked out in white with angel wings and halos, are in a word, revolutionary.
Take a close look. Luke and Matthew ask who is king, Jesus or Herod? Who is God's Son, Jesus or Caesar? What brings fulfillment to the world, the Kingdom of God or the kingdom of Caesar? These two stories set the stage for the upside-down Messiah of the Gospels who saw the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, and the outcasts as God’s dear friends. The nativity stories serve as preludes to the Gospels. Even as a baby, Jesus rattled the status quo.
The nativity stories are replete with subversive themes. Who did God choose to partner with in the redemption of the world? Not with presidents, prime ministers, or princes but with a poor Galilean teenager who gave God a resounding “Yes!” Where was Jesus born? Not in a palace in Rome, but an obscure village on the outskirts of the empire.
What happened when Herod heard about the birth of this alternative king? He went on a rampage and killed innocent male children in Bethlehem. Where did Mary, Joseph, and Jesus flee for safety? They became refugees in Egypt. What are these incidents teaching us about God’s values and the world’s ways? Moreover, whose kingdom do we support? God’s kingdom or contemporary versions of Herod’s and Caesar’s?
Radical and subversive
The birth of Jesus is a radical, subversive event. Mary announces God’s priorities in her song of praise in Luke 1:46-55. Here she sings about the upside-down kingdom her Son would proclaim:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He 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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy, (Luke 1:51-54, NRSV)
In their little book “The First Christmas,” the late Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan lay out the stark contrasts the New Testament draws between God’s kingdom and Caesar’s kingdom.
- Herod the Great, a Roman stool pigeon, considered himself “King of the Jews.” He was ruthless, brutal, and sadistic. He murdered anyone, including three sons, who challenged him. His son, Herod Antipas, who followed him, was no better. But who do the Gospels say was the “King of the Jews?” None other than Jesus.
- What about the names we usually associate with Jesus: Son of God, Lord, Savior of the world, the One who brings peace? Those were titles for Caesar. But the Gospels tell us these designations belong to Jesus, not the emperor.
- What about the Light of the world? Just about anyone in the first century could answer that question. It was the emperor, who was considered the son of Apollo, the Greco-Roman god of light. But what do the Gospels say? It is Jesus who is the true Light of the world and drives out darkness.
Look closely. The upside-down message of the Gospels begins in these two little nativity stories, which set the stage for the Gospel message.
Preparing for the real Christmas
As you prepare for the real Christmas read Matthew 1-2 carefully. It is shorter than Luke’s and told from Joseph’s perspective. It starts with a genealogy, which looks boring at first. In actuality it is subversive. In a patriarchal world it is astounding that women are named. But Matthew’s list contains no ordinary women.
Tamar impersonated a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law, Judah. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho. Ruth was a Moabite, an outsider. Bathsheba, in the Bible’s biggest “Me Too” incident, was a victim of rape by King David (she is mentioned as Uriah’s wife).
Finally, there is Mary, the teenage mother of Jesus whose unusual pregnancy probably raised a few eyebrows. This is the Jesus family tree. What is Matthew’s genealogy telling us about inclusivity in God’s kingdom? How does it apply to us today?
Next, read Luke’s nativity story. It begins at Luke 1:5 and continues through 2:52. Don’t worry if the events in Matthew and Luke don’t line up perfectly. There’s Magi in Mathew who travel to a house and shepherds in Luke who go to a stable. Don’t conflate the accounts. Let Matthew and Luke tell their own stories. We’re after the meaning, not pureeing two different tellings in a Biblical blender.
Luke’s account is more familiar and tells the story from Mary’s perspective. In it you will see how emperors do what emperors do. Caesar uprooted and taxed people without any regard for his subjects: “A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered… All went to their own towns to be registered….” That’s how arrogant leaders always operate.
Don’t complain. Pack up. Get moving. Imagine, nearly at full term Mary making her way from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Joseph, a journey of nearly a hundred miles, to satisfy the whims of the big man in Rome. Moreover, who showed up to honor the newborn King?
Did religious higher-ups or local officials bring flowers or a covered dish? No. Just some riff raff from the other side of the tracks. Poor shepherds, about as socially elite as parking lot attendants, brought something of immense value. They brought themselves to the newborn King. This is radical, transformative stuff.
Christmas is more than shopping, presents and parties. The real Christmas announces that God is King, not Caesar, nor any of his successors today. Delve into these two stories. They will help us remember, rekindle and return to the values and principles of the true King of kings.
The Very Rev. Stephen Brehe served as Dean of St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Helena from 1991 to 2010.
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