A Very Political Christmas

A Very Political Christmas

(CC BY 2.0)

One of my seminary classmates, thinking that his fellow students had strayed away from the true faith, conducted a survey.  He asked, “What is your core belief?   State the heart of your faith in one sentence?”  Expecting a range of un-orthodox answers, the surveyor tallied up the responses and was startled to discover that his classmates returned virtually the same answer.  Every response was some variation of the good news that Jesus calls and redeems people through his grace. That was in 1976.

If that survey were re-run today, I’m certain the results would be less uniform.  The answers would not cluster around personal redemption because Christian faith’s emphasis has broadened in recent years.  We’ve shifted from limiting our focus on God’s forgiveness of the individuals to God’s saving of the whole of Creation.  As scholar, N. T. Wright puts it: “God intends to do for the whole world what he did for Jesus when he raised him from the dead.”

Imagine that seminary student surveying Jesus himself, asking what the core of his personal faith and ministry is.  The student would probably hear, “that the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  These very words, in fact, are how the gospels summarize Jesus’ message.  Jesus spent more time talking about the Kingdom than any other subject.  It would be a reasonable summation of Christian faith to say it is about new persons and it is about a new world.

What is Christmas About?

Christmas has the same emphases.  It is personal and, to use a dangerous word, political.  By political, I mean that Christmas takes up the themes of class, wealth and poverty, power, and prestige.    Luke’s Infancy Narrative makes for a rich study of how God’s plan works spiritually to lift individual persons, and at the same time, is concerned with who the king is, what evils must be resisted, and what may be lauded.

I did a little study of Luke’s Christmas story, which fills his gospel’s first two chapters.  I  highlighted in green those sections that were personal.  These personal passages typically narrate an individual’s thoughts and actions.  I then re-read Luke 1-2 and highlighted in red the sections that conveyed universal or political ideas.

Christmas in Luke is Personal

The green (personal) sections in the Infancy Narrative contain our favorite material.  An example is the conversation between Mary and the Angel Gabriel, where he announces God’s desire to use Mary as the birthing mother of Jesus. Luke 1:26-38  This passage begins with Mary’s mild alarm at encountering an angel.  The conversation quickly turns to the biology of conceiving a baby.  Says Mary, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  The section ends with Mary’s free offer of her body and life to the service of God’s plan.  The conversation is personal and beautiful.  It brims with Mary’s nobility and earnestness.  This is why I colored it green.

Several other sections in Luke 1-2 are similarly intimate.  For example, John the Baptizer’s father, the priest, Zechariah, speaks with an angel but has doubts that his barren wife, Elizabeth, will ever have a baby.  There’s interpersonal tension in this episode between Zechariah and the angel.  Again the personal trust and character qualities of an individual are on display in this section.  So, this also became a green passage.

I enjoyed the neighbor’s folksiness as they gush over Elizabeth’s fortune (Luke 1.58) the neighbors, who chat over the back fence about John’s budding promise, (Luke 1.66) or the gawking shepherds visiting the newborn, (Luke 2.16) or Mary’s spiritual poise as she ponders the events that have overtaken her. (Luke 2.19)

A sentimental thread runs through the Lukan infancy narratives.  The spiritual action in these passages is in the emotions and conversations of individuals.  The focus is on the unpretentious zone of household and neighborhood.

Christmas is Also Political

My red sections—the Creation-wide episodes—move to the pole opposite of the interpersonal sections.  The red sections are generally canticles or annunciations.  These are lyrical texts whose intent is to give a glimpse at God’s intention for Jesus’ life and destiny.

I would include in the “new world” sections:

  1. The angel announcement to Zechariah what his son’s significance will be (Luke 1:16-17).
  2. The angel announcement to Mary what her son’s significance will be (Luke 1:32-33).
  3. Mary’s Song of Praise for what God is doing in her through her pregnancy. (Luke 1:50-55).
  4. Zacheriah’s Song of Praise which rejoices over his son’s destiny as a prophet and leader in Israel (Luke 1:68-79)
  5. The Angel Annunciation to shepherds concerning Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:10-14).

I’ll elaborate on two of these, which are representative of all of them.

Mary’s Song

First, In Mary’s Song of Praise,  she places herself in the context of the whole sweep of Israel’s history under God’s guidance.  She identifies her personal status as a peasant, with that of Israel, which languishes under Roman oppression.  Anticipating that history will always venerate her, Mary sees Israel enjoying a parallel lift in its own status.  At the same time, God will accomplish this enhancement of Israel and Mary the expense of those who are the rich and powerful.  These, God will throw down.  It’s important to note the element of divine judgment here.  This isn’t a therapeutic intervention where God helps the poor to enjoy the same benefits as everyone else.  In Mary’s Song, God here is siding with the oppressed against the rich.  This preferential option for the poor is a Lukan theme, and is explicit in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain:

Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6.24)

Angel’s Announce Jesus’ Birth to Shepherds

My second example of a blatantly political statement in the  Christmas Story is in the angel’s song to the shepherds. (Luke 2:8-20)   The angels describe to the shepherds who has been born for them, using three terms for royalty.  These titles, attached to the newborn, foreshadow for the reader what God has destined Jesus’ to become for the world.

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.  (Luke 2:11)

Savior

The term, savior, is not a religious term designating the saving that Jesus does.  Savior was a political term of that day, which existed before Jesus’ birth, and designated a heroic king.  At the time of Jesus’ birth  the savior-king was Caesar Augustus.  For the angel choir to hail the newborn Jesus as savior and lord is openly subversive.  Such a title attached to Jesus the role of Caesar’s replacement.  It places Jesus in competition for the office occupied by the political head of state.

If the angels had hailed the newborn child as guru, spirit, god, or prophet, they would have signaled that Jesus was compatible with the existing power structure.  But by using a term such as savior, the birth proclamation is defiantly seditious.  It places Jesus in competition for the same space that Augustus occupies.  From birth, God propels Jesus against the principalities and powers of the world, with all the awkwardness and conflict that that portends.

Add this to the fact that Infancy Narratives don’t identify Jesus’ vocation as securing forgiveness or moral betterment for believers.   To be sure, Jesus brings these benefits into the believer’s life.  But the Christmas stories primarily focus on the emergence of a new world in the midst of the existing world.

To celebrate Christmas will always have a tone of hope that the world’s prevailing powers are passing away in order to welcome the new order that God is introducing.  Jesus’ birth unlocks the bleakness that keeps some people perpetually on the bottom of society, never able to secure enough money, recognition, or influence in order to be fully flourishing.  The cry of the baby is the trumpet blast that signals the end of the perpetual reign of elites.  Christmas always hints that a shake-up is drawing near.

By Ben Tubby (Rio, from the Pao de Acucar) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Saving of the Whole World

The political quality of Jesus’ coming also raises the value of the world around.  Many Christians view the world as the stage on which they work out their salvation.  Hopefully, at life’s end, they leave the earth and go into heaven to be close to God.  This scheme assumes a twofold structure to Creation.  One part is heaven where God and God’s people spend eternity.  The other part is the earth, which deteriorates under the burden of human sin.  The earth is disposable and becomes grows ugly and damaged.  Many people, including certain nationalities, those on the low rungs of the social order, and those alienated from religion, God will also allow to be lost.  This dualistic view of life sees no eternal destiny for the Creation, which falls away from God like a spent rocket booster.

This dualistic scheme of Creation is not compatible with the Nativity Texts, nor any other New Testament passages, which affirm that God is not abandoning any earthly territory or people.  Jesus is born into and conducts his ministry in the world’s unimportant and decaying pockets.  Jesus’ calling is to reign in a unique manner, namely peacefully and lovingly.  And, importantly, Jesus promises to return at some future point, bringing heaven itself along with him, to dwell permanently in a perfected created order.  (Revelation 21.1:5)

Under New Ownership

Many Americans have worked for a business that changes hands and becomes part of another business.  A change in ownership brings both a change in the business culture and an eerie sameness.  Employees may not even change desks but must adjust to a new boss and salary.  The company’s moral tone and business philosophy will likely change.  Adjusting to an ownership change is a challenge to the employee.   Sometimes obstinate workers, set in their ways, can’t adapt.  They never learn to do their tasks differently.  There’s another approach.  Sometimes an owner change is a relief to beleaguered employees.  These workers have long been yearning for something to shift.  For them a buyout brings fresh zest.  They may plunge freshly into their work and flourish under new management.

The Christ-follower is in a situation similar to the employee under new management.  Christian ethics are the putting on behaviors and attitudes that will be practiced by everyone at the end of time.  People deemed as god-forsaken can be loved and welcomed now because one day they will enjoy a great elevation in Christ.  Organizations, neighborhoods, and churches that may, by some, appear as failures, will in fact one day thrive.  Trusting this, people can invest in minute factors that will bolster those organizations, knowing that these efforts will not be lost.

Conclusion

I read that the Hallmark Television Channel will be releasing 33 new Christmas-themed movies during the  2017, which brings to 128, the number of films they’ve released since 2008.  These popular movies are formulaic and always end with the male and female leads falling in love.  Christmas itself, while “magical” is without religious content in the Hallmark formula, which is acted out  in an idealized small town and brims with sentimental themes.   Given their popularity, it just may be that Hallmark films are shaping America’s idea of Christmas more than the New Testament.  It’s true that the Bible presents the first Christmas as warm and personal.  But ultimately its subversive.  There’s no way that a new world can be coming without tumultuous upheaval in the world of now.

 

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3 Replies to “A Very Political Christmas”

  1. Very educational and quite relevant. Puts a good bit more context into the Christmas story. Awakens us to what was really happening 2K years ago and how the Kingdom reigns over us today. I got a kick out of the Hallmark Channel thoughts- I think I’ve got the scripts memorized for every one of those (formula) movies that seem to be on in this house all the time. I think I’ll offer to write the next one- should be easy!😁😁

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