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Making Christmas political again
The heavenly host appears to these lowly shepherds to proclaim the good news that Jesus is born. The new savior has arrived. Caesar is about to be replaced.
When he’s telling the story of the Shepherds who receive the news from the Heavenly Host, Luke begins chapter two notifying his readers about a decree that Caesar Augustus sent out that called for a census for all the world to register. The census serves as a literary device, but it should be noted that it’s impossible to salvage the historical accuracy of this census.
There was no report of an empire-wide census; there was no Roman census during the reign of Herod of the Great, there was a later census following Roman’s annexation of Archelaus’s territory in 7 C.E. (but that was well after Herod the Great’s death in 4 B.C.E.), and finally, that census is treated by a historian named Josephus as an event with recent precedent. So what does this mean? The census that Luke writes about didn’t happen.
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Now, I want to pause there for a moment, because depending on your vantage point,a census not occurring at all, puts into question the entire biblical account. If it’s not “true,” you might not want to read the next 21 verses. It might put into question the entire narrative, and for some of you, the entire Bible altogether. Evangelicals tend to think of the Bible as needing to be completely pure in order to be valuable; that sort of purity culture applies to all sorts of other things that Evangelicals, and many Christians before them have propagated. I won’t get into sexual purity culture and the problem with the Virgin Mary today, but I don’t think all of these ideas are too far apart.
Anyway, there is a blemish on the text, you could say. Luke is inaccurate. There’s an error. But I wonder if the truth of the passage is more significant than this error. I don’t think Luke intended to write a sort of historically accurate account, but I don’t think he was writing fiction either. I do think he took literary license to create a truer point about the very occasion.
Luke is showing us that Caesar controls not only the Roman world, but the whole world (that is also an exaggeration, but also a literary and theological point). Caesar can push people around. He moves Joseph and Mary to their hometown. Luke is telling us Caesar runs the world. The census is made so that the people can be taxed and conscripted for military service. Caesar tells you where to be, can take your money, and can use your body for war. Caesar is the Emperor. Luke is telling us clearly that the prevailing belief is that Caesar is King and Caesar is Lord.
But something different is happening. Things aren’t always what they seem. This humble family, and this humble servant of God, are carrying the one who will overturn Ceasar and change the world. The one who kings will tremble before, and the wise will travel to kneel before. This baby savior changes the very political order of the whole world. No wonder Luke didn’t mind getting the details of an expiring Empire’s census wrong, Jesus was bringing something new. Jesus is King. Jesus is Lord.
We see it all over the story, but we see it, especially today. Jesus enters the world as a baby savior, a humble young woman who gives birth to him, and the first to shepherds. The heavenly host appears to these lowly shepherds to proclaim the good news that Jesus is born. The new savior has arrived. Caesar is about to be replaced.
Shepherds are hated in the ancient world, watching someone else’s sheep, and trying to keep track of someone’s property. They worked in shifts and stayed up all night. But the angel’s appearance to them showcases the disruptive reversal of Jesus’ arrival. The political powerbrokers don’t hear of Jesus’ coming first, but rather the lowliest people in the loneliest fields in that little town of Bethlehem.
But Shepherds are also revered throughout Israel’s history. Moses is a shepherd, David is a shepherd, and Amos is a shepherd. They are lowly in their position but elevated throughout the story. Shepherds symbolize God’s care for the most vulnerable. Pastors are named pastors because of their shepherding qualities. Pastors need to care for their people, but too often they protect their interests or the powerful.
The beauty of this here this Good Shepherd, Jesus, that is arriving here, is uplifting these lowly shepherds. This shepherd, Jesus, is found in lowly estate just like these shepherds were in.
These lowly people are terrified when the heavenly host surrounds them. They come not to bring fear – at least to these people – because they bright good news of great joy for all the people. Not for special people, not for elite people, but for all the people. What is the good news? A new political ruler is arriving, and he’s granted three political titles: Savior, Messiah, and Lord. And this political ruler comes in a topsy-turvy way, in the form of a baby, lying in a manger.
The angels are thrilled and they burst into song. Glory to the newborn king! Listen to their words: “Glory to Godin the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those he favors.”
This juxtaposition is crucial. God is given glory from the highest heaven – God is above all, supreme above all, and then he descends on the earth and offers his favor to those whom he favors. Who does God favor, let’s go to the Magnificat to see. Here’s the quote from the opening of the song:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
It is the lowliest who are favored. The lowliest are elevated by the God in the high heaven. Jesus arrives to flatten the hills, and fill the valleys. Jesus changes the whole world – the whole world upside down.
Jesus arrives in this world to undo all the systems of death and oppression, and that is good news for everyone. He doesn’t come merely to be your personal savior, but rather to save the whole world. We follow Jesus to continue to that work. His arrival signals a change, and his disciples follow him to keep this new way of relating happening.
We’re resisting the way of the world and forming something new. That is what Christmas is about. Make Christmas political again. Make it consequential again. It doesn’t fit into this political economy, or conveniently in our lives. It disrupts our lives, it doesn’t “save them,” because those who want to save their lives, will lose them. But those who lose them will save them.
Pay attention to the people threatened by this way, the ones who are in grief at their loss of power, crying about their oppression, instead of celebrating the liberation of those they oppress. Caesar Augustus, who rules over all of Rome, as demonstrated by his census here, is threatened by Jesus and will eventually kill him. So are the local religious and political rulers.
Pay attention to us now, those who hold power over us, they are the ones who need to be emptied, and who Jesus did not come to first. Jesus going to the rulers keeps the order the same. He goes to the lowly and puts them over the rulers. The world turning upside down. We must ask who is Caesar today and who the shepherds are. Who would Jesus reveal himself to? Maybe the workers fighting for their rights, trans people in Texas trying not to get put on a list, or maybe it is the immunocompromised and disabled who have to endure another holiday season with the majority of the country acting like we aren’t in a pandemic any longer.
The cosmic, political nature of the incarnation is lost on us in our individualized Christmas holiday and notion of Christian salvation. Jesus didn’t come just to save you, or to have a personal relationship. He came to set the captives free, just like God did with Israel in Egypt. He came to redeem the world. We get to participate in that now. As we make the last first, and the first last, we are participating in the incarnation of our Lord now. Being Jesus’ body in the world now.