Home > Parables Fables & More > Christmas – 2000 Years of Revolution [*]

Christmas – 2000 Years of Revolution [*]

Introduction

NativityIn a couple weeks, I will be celebrating Christmas for the umpteenth consecutive year. I have gone to Church my whole life and have heard the Christmas Story about a hundred times. I have personally been involved in a number of stage performances where we read passages, sang songs, and acted out scenes. Even if you are like me and have heard the story countless times, I invite you to read the story again, with a fresh set of eyes.

Ancient History

The bulk of the Christmas story is told in two books of the Bible, Matthew and Luke, and is actually spread across approximately three years time. Often we are told the story as though it all happened on one night, but that is neither true nor even very important when you get right down to it. The story really begins in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, and is brought up again and again as the Old Testament (one of two major divisions of the Bible) prophesies the coming of a Savior, someone that will redeem the whole world from every wrong, past, present, and future. Some of the words used to describe the “Savior” include “Lord”, “Christ”, “King”, and “Messiah”. Some passages of the Bible describe the Savior as though he is a great conqueror, one that will undo all existing kingdoms and turn them to ruin.

At the time that the Christmas Story takes place, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, were living under the rule of Rome. The Romans had conquered most of the known world, mostly by slaughtering and devastating all living things that stood in their way. The Roman Empire was so huge that it’s capital (Rome) was simply too far away from most places to really be seen as a force. To compensate for this, there were governors, sometimes referred to as kings, that ruled over various territories. These kings had nearly sovereign power within their territory, but they ultimately had to answer to the Caesar, the supreme ruler of the empire.

The Caesar at the time of this story was Caesar Augustus. The period during which Augustus ruled is often referred to as “peaceful” by popular historians. If by peaceful, they mean that Augustus killed any threat before it became un-peaceful, then yes, it was a peaceful time. As with many empires in history, the Roman money displayed the image of its current ruler. Many monuments, temples, and altars were erected in his honor. Augustus proclaimed himself as the “Savior of the World”. To ensure that his people did not forget this, such phrases were plastered everywhere throughout his kingdom. One of the anthems that he pressed upon his people (much like today’s national anthem) included the chorus “Glory to man in the highest.” The song was meant to instill in his people that he alone would solve all of mankind’s problems and therefore their problems.

The king of Judea at the time was Herod. He rose to power by brown nosing with whichever leader seemed to have the most power at the moment. He was so insecure in himself that he distrusted everyone around him. He was so suspicious of his own wife that he eventually had her executed on trumped up charges. He also murdered other family members including his mother-in-law and brother-in-law.

The Virgin

The Bible states that Mary became pregnant without having slept with her fiancé (or anyone else). For whatever reason some people can’t accept the notion of the virgin birth. I apologize for oversimplifying myself here, but if God is in fact all-powerful then He is therefore… um…. how do I put it? … all-powerful. Regardless, Mary became pregnant before she was married. It is reported that her husband, Joseph, wanted to secretly call off the wedding so as not to embarrass her too much. From what I know, a child born out of wedlock at that time was not commonplace and was even more disgraceful than in today’s culture. Fortunately, God sent messages to both Mary and Joseph individually to let them know that they not only did not need to feel ashamed but that they could be proud to know that Mary was pregnant with the son of God, the highly anticipated Savior of the world. They were told to name the boy Jesus.

The Birth

About the time that Jesus was to be born, Caesar Augustus declared that a census was to be taken of his entire empire. A census is a ruler’s way of finding out just how powerful they really are by counting the number of people that they rule over. Caesar declared that each person was to return to his or her hometown for the census. The Bible says that Joseph and Mary had to travel a great distance to get to Joseph’s hometown. When they arrived, there was no place to stay. The Bible does not explicitly state that the couple stayed in a barn, but it does state that after Jesus was born, he was placed in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Imagine if you will what it must have been like when Jesus was born. Mary was likely in her mid-teens. (Joseph was likely over thirty-five.) Although Joseph was in his hometown, the fact that Jesus was in a manger and therefore in some sort of animal dwelling indicates there were no family members around to help out. So here is this young girl and her husband in a foreign country in a place that probably smelled of poop. The childbirths that I have experienced were quite loud. I also don’t know of many animals that will stay quiet when they hear a woman screaming in pain. I imagine that the birth of Jesus was probably very noisy, smelly, and messy. When he came out, Jesus was probably crying and covered with goo just like the rest of us. Instead of being tended to by doctors and nurses, Jesus was probably cleaned using the same water that the animals drank, wrapped in blankets, and then put in the manger. I imagine that he was placed there while Mary rested and Joseph cleaned up. This story so far does not seem like the way for a great “king” to enter the world. Shouldn’t a “king”, a “conqueror”, the “savior of the world” enter this place with a bit more flare? Augustus and Herod were probably fast asleep in their palaces wrapped comfortably in their warm blankets and further comforted by incenses, perfumes, and the utter lack of noisy animals.

The Shepherds

Here is where the story takes a turn! Not far from where Jesus was born, there were shepherds watching over their flock at night. Shepherds weren’t exactly high-class citizens at that time but I think what happened to the shepherds makes this point even more valuable. An angel appeared to the shepherds and they were afraid. I have never seen an angel before but the winged human-looking figures we see at Christmas time and around churches don’t exactly strike me with terror. Joseph and Mary had also been frightened when they received messages from God via angels. Something tells me that angels are just a tad more majestic than what Hallmark or the renaissance artists have led us to believe. Here is what the angel says to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” It would seem that the angel addressed their fear immediately. Perhaps it was not the first time the angel had to say that. The second part of that statement, however, is what’s really important. The angel had good news for “all the people”, not just the roman elite and the upper middle class who managed to stay on the good side of the roman rulers, and not just the Jews, God’s chosen people. No, this news was and is for everyone!

After calming the shepherds’ nerves the angel continued, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Then a host of angels appeared in the sky and they sang these words, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” This should all sound very familiar to you. The first part of this chorus is almost verbatim from Caesar’s anthem! The second part is a parallel to how Caesar and the Roman government ruled. Before the song started, the other angel used the words “Savior”, “Christ”, and “Lord”, all of which were used to refer to Caesar. What does this all mean? Were these words just a coincidence?

The Magi

At the time that Jesus was born, a star is said to have appeared in the sky over his location. Some Magi (the wise men) from a distant land saw the star and knew that it meant that the prophesied King had been born. They traveled a great distance to find the newborn king but made a stop at Herod’s house to announce what they were doing. Imagine this, you are foreigner who I am sure is familiar with the Roman’s way of ruling. You get news of a new king being born. So, you go to the current king and tell him about it! What were the Magi thinking? “Hi Herod. We were just stopping by on the way to deliver these gifts to the new King of the Jews.” I am somewhat surprised that they made it out alive, but I think that they did because Herod hoped that they would find the new king and tell him where he was. This way Herod could go “worship” the new king too.

The Magi did find Jesus in his home (not a barn or manger) with Mary. Imagine now that you are Mary. You are home alone or perhaps with a couple of girlfriends when a group of royal-looking men show up at your door. You know that your son represents a threat to the Roman Empire! How do you react when these foreigners, instead of causing harm, actually bow down and worship your child?

After delivering the gifts and paying homage to Jesus, the Magi returned home. The Bible says that the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and instead took an alternate route home. Eventually Herod got wise to this and was furious. You already know that he had his wife murdered. Now he knew of a threat to his place as King of the Jews. How do you think he reacted? The Bible says that he murdered every boy in the city of Bethlehem and the surrounding area that was two years old and under. Fortunately for Jesus, his family, and all of us sinners, Joseph had already taken his family to live in Egypt where God had told him it would be safe. The families that remained were not so fortunate.

Conclusion

The Christmas Story is not a warm and fuzzy story. The point of the story is not to make you feel good or make you want to give gifts. To me this is a story of revolution. The last time that America had a true revolution was the Civil War where slavery was abolished. Most of us have not experienced a true revolution and may not be able to grasp the full depth of this story. Jesus did not come to this world to overthrow Rome (as Herod thought) but to overthrow this world’s way of thinking. The Bible shows countless situations where even the Jewish religious leaders did not understand Jesus’ intentions! Like the Romans, they saw him as a threat to their legalistic system.

Throughout the Gospel (the first four books of the New Testament), the words “Savior”, “King”, and “Messiah” are used repeatedly to refer to Jesus. This was not by coincidence. Jesus often spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven… not the Kingdom of Earth or Israel or any other worldly place. He came here to invite us to join his kingdom, which is not of this world. The Kingdom that he describes values traits such as patience, humility, honesty, mercy, and love, things that neither the Roman nor Jewish religious rulers could understand. Sadly, these are things that most of us don’t fully grasp either even after all these years. In fact, the rush of this season tends to squeeze out these good things and replaces them with stress, greed, guilt, and all too often loneliness.

I encourage you to pick up a Bible, dust it off, and check out this story for yourself. The most familiar parts of the Christmas story can be found in Matthew 1:18 – 2:18 and Luke 2:1-20. If you don’t have a Bible, try these links: Luke 2 and Matthew 1:18 – 2:18.

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