Rethinking Christmas

There can be a gauzy, candlelit coziness to Christmas Eve and Day — and that’s all well and good, as far as it goes.  Coziness in the midst of December is a fine thing, and no Christmas season would be complete without the warm, wondrous enchantment it inspires.

But at the same time, there’s a gritty, down-to-earth, even political side to the Christmas stories in scripture, “political” not in the partisan sense (God help us!), but rather in the deeply human, communal, what-kind-of-world-shall-we-build-together sense — and sometimes the season’s gauziness can obscure it. The best Advent and Christmas seasons honor both wonder and justice, coziness and the beloved community.

Mary’s song is a case in point, with her celebration of “lifting up the lowly” and “bringing down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1:52). But so is the story of the manger, the shepherds, and the angels. Far from a sentimental, romantic tale “in olden days of yore,” the story is actually a subversive, high-stakes thriller — and a startlingly contemporary one at that, in this age of bitter controversy over immigration and authoritarianism all over the world.

Immigration and authoritarianism!? Don’t inject politics into Christmas!  But that’s just it: the truth is many Christian communities have already injected politics into Christmas, not by reading these issues into it, but by obscuring or ignoring the fact that they’re already there, hidden in plain sight.

Consider how Luke begins the story, right out of the gates, with a sentence that should take our breath away: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1).  

All the world! Think of the sheer ambition in that decree, the totalitarian appetite. A single, comprehensive grid meant to fall across the whole creation, fixing its coordinates, seizing everything in a single grasp, capturing everyone the way a hidden net, camouflaged in the leaves, suddenly springs up and around its prey.

And for what? Luke’s early listeners would know right away, of course: for taxes, for tribute to the empire, for extracting value in order to build palaces and armies — in short, for strengthening the imperial grip. And those listeners would know, too, the implicit threat of force in such a decree, the unsaid “or else,” the chill in the air as the grim news spread far and wide.

And so “all went to their towns to be registered” — everyone, even the sick and infirm, even a pregnant woman on the verge of giving birth. The image is Orwellian, a glimpse of the forced marches and bureaucratic control in authoritarian regimes to come (the Nazis, for example, with their meticulous records, took after Augustus).

And so this striking beginning of the story, so far from a romantic portrait, sounds a clear note of imperial dominion and icy menace. Christmas begins not only with Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, but also with the tyrant’s announcement, his audacious, intimidating attempt at universal control.

And God will be born in the midst of this world, in the wake of this brazen decree.

But God will slip through the net — and even use it for divine purposes. Like a masterful, mischievous trickster, God enlists Augustus’ attempt to capture the world into part of the divine plan to save it (Micah 5:2) — since it is the decree, after all, that brings the family from Nazareth to Bethlehem, “the house and family of David” (David, that other child-trickster who foiled Goliath!).

But even in Bethlehem, God will be born beyond the coordinates of imperial surveillance. No address, no trackable trail — this is the deep meaning of “no room in the inn.” God arrives, but beyond the reach of the emperor’s grasp. God is off the grid, hidden with the animals, as yet unnamed (the child isn’t named until the 8th day (Luke 2:21)). In brief, God is homeless, anonymous, incognito — that is: unregistered. Undocumented.

As Luke tells it, this is the story’s most conspicuous dramatic tension. On one side, the emperor’s attempt to control the world through registration — and on the other, God’s unregistered arrival.

And then — just in case we missed it — the story of the shepherds drives the point home. The shepherds don’t live in the towns, but rather up in the surrounding hills. They, too, have no addresses, and in the story, no names. They, too, are “living in the fields” with the animals, flouting the emperor’s decree, for they have not “returned to their towns” to be registered.

They are the unrecorded, the undocumented. They live in imperial territory, but beyond the emperor’s control. And sure enough, of all the people in all the world, they are the ones singled out to receive the world-changing good news. They are the ones to whom the angels sing.

They are the ones who receive the strange, tantalizing directions for finding the unfindable child. The unregistered shepherds told of the unregistered savior in the city of David (David, that shepherd!) — and so they go to him, to find him and admire him and pay him their respects. He’s one of us! they say to each other. He lives beyond the empire’s dominion!  He sleeps with the creatures! He lies in a manger!

And then, the coup de grace: the nameless shepherds issue their own public pronouncement, their counter-decree, passing on to all what the angels proclaimed to them: “Good news of great joy for all people; for unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior!”

The emperor says, “All the world!” The shepherds say, “For all people!” Two decrees, together establishing the central dramatic tension of Christmas. And Mary — the author of the Magnificat, that song about overturning tyrants — keeps her own counsel, pondering all of this in her heart (Luke 2:19).

So by all means, this Christmas season, let’s light candles and sing carols and gather around the tables of love, in person or online. But at the same time, let’s recall the world-turning, subversive promises of Christmas, the radiant good news that God comes to lift up the lowly, to honor the unregistered, to privilege the underprivileged — and to oppose every imperial attempt, yesterday and today, to control, extract, and hoard the blessings of creation.

Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

(reposted from )