Amid all the tinsel, baubles, half-eaten turkeys and re-runs of the Muppet Christmas Carol, lets get back to the true meaning of Christmas for a moment. And it’s this:
In the New Testament, there are 2 accounts of the birth of Jesus. Luke’s version tells us that Augustus Caesar rules the world, and proves it by ordering a census which sends poor Jewish families like Joseph & Mary trekking 100 miles on foot to sign a register. No wonder censuses caused riots and uprisings. This isn’t background information, it’s a potent reminder of the harsh reality of the ancient world, and the superpower which ruled it.
Into this Luke drops the fact that Joseph is a direct descendent of David, the great Israelite king. They go to David’s town (Bethlehem), and the miracle baby is born. In the Bible a miracle baby usually means God is about to do something amazing (Isaac, Moses, Samuel). Then the angels (= ‘messengers’) announce that this baby is the Christ, or Messiah. In other words, this is the king God was going to send, who would rule not only God’s people, but the whole world, in God’s way. Stand aside Caesar, there is a new dynasty.
Matthew’s gospel is even more blatant. The first few paragraphs spell out Jesus’ direct descent from king David, right back to Abraham. There is no question that this is the rightful king. It’s therefore quite a surprise to find that Herod is in fact king of Israel. By the time Herod is mentioned (at the start of chapter 2), it’s clear that he’s a usurper, and his job is to stand aside. It’s only the visit of the wise men, come to worship and honour the new king, which puts Herod on red alert.
Of course Herod doesn’t stand aside, and neither does Caesar. Human government - whether the local tyrant (Herod) or the impersonal international system (Caesar) doesn’t take kindly to being challenged. Look at the feverish efforts of the West to maintain military supremacy, and the mind-boggling levels of resources poured into keeping the economic system on its feet in recent months. This system is not about to say ‘ok, game over, somebody else have a go’.
But this is the true meaning of Christmas. Game over: God wants to have a go. A go at ruling with justice, and without cruelty. A new system which, born among the poor, rules for them rather than against them. The birth of Jesus, and the way the gospels portray it, is intensely political. No wonder many early Christians were martyred and persecuted - the powers of the time grasped very clearly what the Christian faith was claiming: there is a new leader, and we are going to follow him, not you.
Sadly the church has messed up in two ways. Firstly, when we’ve had power and influence we’ve not used it well. Crusades. Enough said. Secondly, we’ve allowed the Christmas story to turn in modern times into a twee bit of escapism, and lost the revolutionary political edge which it originally carried.
So have yourself a subversive, political Christmas. It’s what Jesus would want.
This is a cross-post from the Wardman Wire on Christmas Day. And in case you think 'hang on, he's said this before', yes it's an abbreviated version of some of the 'Three Kings' sermon from earlier this week.