Christmas A, Year B
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town
of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood beforethem, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as
it had been told them.
Both Matthew and Luke place Jesus’ birth in the midst of governing authorities that would use any and all means to achieve their ends. In Matthew, Herod wages a pogrom against Jewish male children, in Luke, the scene is the larger world ruled by the Romans. A census is taken for the primary purpose of estimating tax burdens. Client kings like Herod would then be responsible for acquiring tax money. It is estimated that over 40% of an average “income” was handed over for taxes thus making life for most barely tolerable (sounds kinda familiar, huh?)
This system of political-economic-social exploitation has another side that is psychological-intellectual-religious. In the New Testament this singular system with many facets is called the "“principalities and powers." It can also be called “the world” (kosmos) in John’s gospel. It indicates a complex of phenomena, all of which are tied to one another, all of which result from and depend upon the scapegoating mechanism. Thus they are, in a word chosen by Rene in his most recent book, “satanic.” (I See Satan Fall Like Lightening)
From the perspective of Luke, the birth of this child into this “world” creates a new possibility, viz., “on earth….peace.” This Peace Child is not like the peace of the Pax Romana, the ‘satanic’ peace that results from the sacralization of the victim. The Roman Peace, like all governmental peacekeeping, is grounded in violence. Peace Through Strength. The peace that this child represents is the alternative to mimetic peace.
Girard has observed that there are two things that occasion reconciliation: violence and love. Violence accomplishes it’s goal through the sacrifice, sacralization and mythologizing of the victim (see Introductory Articles). Love accomplishes reconciliation through forgiveness.
Luke may not be correct in his historical timing, over which there is debate, and he may be using the census as a narrative device to get Mary to Bethlehem, but the larger context in which Luke writes is the world of the Pax Romana. His readers know full well the might and power of the Roman Army, which crushed the Jewish revolt and destroyed the temple and thus brought the full benefits (sic) of the Roman Peace to Israel.
In the Infancy Narrative of Luke, Peace Through Strength is juxtaposed with the sign of a child lying in a manger. Joseph Fitzmeyer: “Thus Luke, writing from a later period in the Roman age, associates the birth of Jesus with a famous Roman emperor and suggests that the real bearer of peace and salvation to the whole world is the one whose birth occurred in the town of David and was made known by the angels of heaven.”
Richard Horsley in his insightful _The Liberation of Christmas_ remarks that “regardless of what Luke or a conceivable pre-Lucan story had in mind, any reader or hearer of this story in the Hellenistic-Roman world, particularly in Palestine, would have understood here a direct opposition between Caesar, the savior who had supposedly brought peace, and the child proclaimed as the savior, whose birth means peace.”
So exegesis which bypasses the social-political-economic implications of the text and resorts to an interpretation that has no concrete earthly referent (what Willard Swartley has referred to as the ‘Pietist seduction’) and is all too often the norm from Christmas pulpits, needs to be challenged.
Klaus Wengst provides an overall view of the Pax Romana. He notes 5 aspects of this worldly peace.
- It is a peace established through military victory.
a. It can be seen the coinage which reflects peace by portraying vanquished foes suffering under the feet of the Emperor(s) or gods along with weapons of war.
b. Peace is acquired through raids and the taking of hostages.
- It is a peace that allows one to enjoy one’s possessions.
a. “Peace and Security” which refers to internal civic security and “Peace and Concord” which refers to external national security are common slogans. It is freedom from fear if you were a Roman citizen.
b. It is the peace of the rich.
- It is a peace which protects the common market of the earth.
a. By it the Romans would build the remarkable system of roads they used. Solders stationed throughout the empire preferred plunder to pay.
b. Peace allowed the Romans to set up toll booths on frontier roads (people didn’t like taxes then either).
c. Rome was perceived as a parasite on the world, draining the world of its resources.
- It is a peace which is established by the imposition of Roman law.
a. It is a legal peace which is flouted with impunity by the upper class. Money ruled. Wealth secured mild treatment, poverty ensured harsh treatment.
- It is a peace with religious components.
a. If the emperor is great it is because the gods wanted him so. The emperor serves as “vicar of God on earth.” What the emperor decides is always and everywhere ‘truth, justice and law.’
b. Emperors arrogated to themselves divine rights as ‘sons of God.’ In the city, he is praised by the poets. In the provinces he is venerated with official documents and calendrical feast days.
c. Sacrifice takes place before his image, to do otherwise was political disloyalty.
It is this world into which Jesus was born and why Luke gives us such a ‘detailed though incorrect’ narrative context. The census is a powerful tool of empire that clearly expresses the burden of those who were forced to surrender so much to so few. Luke’s context is deliberate. It is in this context that the angelic choir announces a different peace, the peace of a God who favored humanity.
A second narrative touch by Luke indicates this wonderful God. The announcement of the birth by the angelic messenger comes to shepherds. Since Jeremias, it is common to point out the low social status of shepherds in Palestine. Shepherds plied a ‘despised trade.’ It is not the religiously pure, nor the ruling authorities, nor the esteemed to whom the angel came but to the “have-nots.” God’s Peace is announced to those who only know peace as oppression. Charles Talbert notices this: “This good news, moreover, is ‘for all people’ (vs. 10), outcast as well as in-group. In Luke’s time shepherds were often considered outside the law. Their testimony was considered invalid because of their reputation for dishonesty (b. Sanhedrin 25b). Yet it was to such as these the angel announced the good news of the Savior’s birth (2:8-11). This can only be regarded as a foreshadowing of the subsequent theme of God’s grace shown to sinners which runs throughout Luke” (Reading Luke).
In westernized countries, Christmas preachers are too often tempted to settle for sermons that do little more than rehash the children’s Christmas pageant. Replete with sentimentality and silent concerning consumerism, clergy are often ignorant of the real life implications of the Infancy Narratives. (And even if they see it, they are often loathe to upset their congregations on Christmas!).
On the other hand, the radical politicizing of the Christmas story in which the birth of Jesus is seen as a justification for ‘revolutionary violence’ also misses the point of peace and God’s peacemaking in the story. Indeed, such a reading is no less guilty of mimetic violence than the reading from empire.
The balance between the two can only be found when we recognize the radical peace character of the God who is behind the birth of this child. What if God were one of us?
We do well not to overlook the potential implications of such a reading as a critique of a consumerist holiday mentality. The cultural stimuli of the holiday season, gift-giving, parties, family get-togethers can all be seen as ritual functions of a sacrificial crisis. Scapegoating is common practice during the holiday season. Tensions run high as families struggle to produce holidays that conform to Ozzie and Harriet ideals. Blame is shared as much as cheer. No wonder there is more depression at this time of year than any other. Peace on earth?
Only when we as a people acknowledge that God is not in any way associated with violence will we find peace. God is only associated with violence as victim, never as a rival with humanity, never in retaliation. According to Luke, the Creator of heaven and earth loves us and God’s gift to us is Jesus, the victim.
I’m tempted to say that on Christmas we need to talk about the Incarnation. But I know that each year brings its own readings, and each reading has a facet that is important to observe with regard to God’s coming in the flesh.
But a growing concern for the influence of dualism and Gnostic trajectories in both Christianity and the academy wells up inside me and I so want to shout ‘The Word has become Flesh.” In a sense the transcendence of the virgin birth story and the birth story itself is perceived within immanence. This is the beauty of Christmas Day, Creator and creation have become unalterably united. Marcion might not like it, but it is the gospel. Thanks be to God.