Among global literature, few narratives are as a baldly subversive and anti-imperial as the Christmas stories, while at the same time so neutralized. The gospel writers of Matthew and Luke (the only canonical gospels with birth narratives) each in their own unique way set up a stark confrontation between Jesus and the Roman Caesars, of all things—something no first-century reader would have failed to recognize or to understand the audacity of. But for the most part, the two dramatically different accounts1 are harmonized and Hallmark-ized in our day and historically—synthesized into one sweet story of strained hospitality and humble beginnings. At least this is how it is presented in the American context where we rather uncomfortably find ourselves as empire. America is, after all, the most influential global empire the world has known. Has this hampered our ability to understand what the Christmas stories are really saying?
The juxtaposition of Luke’s Christmas story is one between a peace brought through violence (the Pax Romana) and a peace brought through nonviolence by way of the Christ (Lk 1:79; 2:14; 2:29-32). In his birth narrative, Matthew emphasizes Jesus as the new Davidic king (Luke does as well), and then goes on to show how—unlike the unfathomably violent kingdom of David—the “kingdom of God” elucidated by Jesus is one marked by self-giving, all-embracing love and an utter transformation of consciousness. These narratives offer a scathing critique of imperial methods of controlling people, holding onto power, conquering territory, and advancing/protecting the empire’s survival. In Matthew’s somewhat satirical style, this is epitomized by the feckless, duped, and blood-thirsty King Herod—emissary of Rome—who is so afraid of losing his power to a peasant infant that he has all of the babies in Bethlehem slaughtered. In Luke, it is epitomized in the song of the humble Galilean girl Mary, Jesus’ mother-to-be, who proclaims:
“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, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:51-55).
How can we better understand what is going on in these birth narratives so we can commemorate and celebrate Christmas in all of its subversive power, reflecting on what the story is saying to people in every age about power and peace?
First, let us look at what the gospel writers were doing in the first place by calling their writings evangelion (the Greek word translated “gospel” or “good news”). So much is contained in that word. Prior to what we now know as the Christian gospels, the word evangelion had not been used to denote an account of a person in the way the gospels are narrative accounts of Jesus’ ministry. Before Christian usage, evangelion was essentially a news-bulletin of the empire, heralding some imperial accomplishment (“good tidings”).2 For example, after the Romans would conquer a new people, or would march into a rebellious colony and wreak havoc and murder to get them in line, or otherwise achieve some military victory, they would post an evangelion (or more commonly plural: evangelia) stating what they had accomplished to advance the empire. There is also at least one instance when the word evangelion was used to announce or commemorate the birthday of Caesar Augustus, who was called “Lord” and “Savior” and “Son of God.” The birth of the Caesar was considered to be a divine birth.
Moreover, many of the lauds imperial subjects were required to lavish upon the Roman emperor are lauds written about Jesus in the canonical gospels and other New Testament writings. These include: “Caesar is Lord,” “Savior,” and “Son of God,” as listed above. But subjects were also commanded to say of the Emperor: “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we may be saved,” the very words used to describe Jesus in the book of Acts (4:12; Acts being Part Two of Luke’s gospel, written by the same author).
In short, the gospel writers were most definitely subverting the proclamations of the Roman Empire by claiming that the Galilean teacher Jesus (rather than Caesar) was “Lord” and “Savior” and “Son of God”—Jesus who had been executed by way of Rome’s favorite execution method, a cross, and who was understood by his followers to be sent by God to proclaim the upside-down values of God’s “kingdom,” calling people to seek this kingdom where the “first will be last, and the last will be first.” According to the gospel writers, Jesus’ portrait of God and of a new way of being, a new consciousness, was the true evangelion or “good news.” Modern readers are mostly unaware of these parallels. But first-century readers would have been so struck by the scandalous-ness of the gospels and by their confrontation with the power claims of the empire, that the gospels would have been banned books of the highest order. It should not be surprising that so many first-century Christians were killed by the Romans. And though the earliest gospel likely wasn’t completed until late in Nero’s life, it shouldn’t shock us that when Nero needed a scapegoat for the devastating burning of Rome, he chose Christians. Christians were hated by the empire because they mocked it, deconstructed it, and subverted it in favor of a radically different “way of peace.”
How far we have come—for good and for ill. For good, because no one wants to be fed to the lions. For ill, because many in our day are trying to dress the American empire up as a Christian nation, doing what they can to create a trumped-up theocracy, when this so entirely misses the point of Jesus and the embracing, inclusive, love-based, peacemaking “realm” he called, quite subversively, “the kingdom of God.”
The Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke served as preludes, or overtures, to those gospels. They encapsulated in miniature the good news of the larger piece. For readers living under the boot of imperial violence, including systematic economic and religious oppression, spying, collective punishments, rule by fear, and outright aggression in the colonies—violence that during the conflict in mid first-century Palestine burst into all-out war with accompanying rape and torture and tens of thousands crucified, the Christmas stories would have been emboldening, and in certain ways satirical. We must never forget that this context inspired the gospels and their Christmastide overtures. If we are to understand them at all, we must remember their context and what it meant for a poor man like Jesus to come show us and invite us to participate in the incarnation of the Divine in this world, and what it meant for him to be lauded with appellations reserved for the Caesar.
In Luke, an angel appears to shepherds (the lowest of status) to herald the birth of this child Jesus who they call “Savior” and “Lord,” absconding Caesar’s titles—titles imperial subjects were imprisoned and killed for refusing to ascribe to the Emperor. Later, Luke portrays Jesus being recognized in the temple by the prophets Simeon and Anna as the one who would be “the redemption of Jerusalem,” the city those reading the gospel in the decades after its creation knew to be recently decimated by Rome. In Matthew, after a long genealogy linking Jesus to the patriarchs, an angel appears to Joseph explaining to him that Mary, his betrothed, will miraculously give birth to a child who will be the salvation of Israel. Magi from the east come to King Herod, Rome’s client king in Palestine who reckoned himself “King of the Jews,” and the Magi ask, where is the child who has been born “King of the Jews”? The story is a direct challenge to all the colonizing rulers Herod’s character represents. Even the very stars align to direct the Magi to baby Jesus, who they shower with gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In parallel with Israel’s story, the holy family must flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s narcissistic baby-killing rampage in Bethlehem.
I find these Christmas stories both challenging and enlivening. If the Christian tradition merely sanctioned the status quo, the “domination system,” it would have nothing to offer. It would be another passing domination narrative by those seeking to advance their tribe and their egos. But the Christmas stories are microcosms of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, or overtures, and as such reveal a rich counter narrative to the domination system’s way of violence, oppression, and greed. There is so much to love here!
So too, there is so much that challenges. I am an American who—like many Americans—benefits from being a citizen of history’s most far-reaching empire (this, added to the benefits of my being part of the dominant group in America). And almost all Americans benefit from our country’s geopolitical domination, whether in the form of low prices at the grocery store and gas pump, freedom of movement around the world, or in other ways. It can be so easy to forget or to “choose not to remember” how we benefit from the systematic domination of people in our own time and historically. And it can make it hard for us to understand the power of the Christmas stories, the confrontation leveled by Jesus.
This Christmas, may we have our ears tuned to hear its subversive message, and may we invite real understanding and all of the reparative efforts it demands of us. If “the first are to be last, and the last first,” it will be so because we actualize this vision in our own spheres of influence, living out the “way of peace” that Jesus taught us.
1 The narratives in Matthew and Luke are quite different, as shown by this chart summarizing their key points:
[Focus on Joseph, Herod, and Magi; emphasis on Bethlehem]
-Announcement of Mary’s pregnancy to Joseph
-Appearance of a star
-Herod hears news of birth of a “King of the Jews”
-Visit of the Magi with expensive gifts to the house where Jesus is born in Bethlehem, which seems to be Joseph’s hometown
-Herod’s plot to kill Jesus
-Holy family flees to live in Egypt
-Herod’s massacre of infants in Bethlehem
-Return to Nazareth from Egypt after Herod dies
[Genealogy at beginning of story; emphasizes connection of Jesus to Abraham (the “son of David”)]
[Focus on Mary, John the Baptist and his family, and on humble shepherds; “songs” of Mary and Zechariah emphasize “good news to the poor” and “God’s mercy,” respectively]
-John the Baptist’s birth foretold; story about his father
-Angel’s announcement to Mary of pregnancy
-Mary visits John’s mother Elizabeth
-Birth of John the Baptist & more about his parents
-Jesus is born in a “manger” in Bethlehem, after going there from family’s hometown of Nazareth
-Angels announce birth to shepherds, who visit Jesus
-Presentation of Jesus in the temple; Prophets Anna & Simeon recognize significance of Jesus.
[Genealogy at end story; emphasizes connection of Jesus to Adam (son of David, but also “the new Adam”)]
2 To see the Greek passages, visit: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/wordfreq?lang=greek&lookup=eu%29agge%2Flion