Christmas in October: A Confrontation with Culture?
When it comes to reading the Bible and applying what we read to life, one of the most difficult tasks for American Christians is to first attempt to hear the passages as they originally would have been heard. Of course, we then want to hear them in our context of the 21st century West, but that should be a second step based upon carrying out the first step as well as we possibly can.
When trying to read the “Christmas Story” as it originally would have been heard, this process can become almost shocking for us. In spite of the fact that some scholars attempt to present Luke as the New Testament writer who wished to accommodate the “Good News” to the Roman Empire, the predominant tenor of the text seems to lean in exactly the opposite direction.
Listen to these two excerpts from the first two chapters of Luke:
God (“the Mighty One”) has performed mighty deeds with his arm; God has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. God has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. God has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty. God has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers. (Luke 1:51-55)
Any reader from 60AD – 130AD (outside dates for Luke’s writing, according to scholars) in any part of the world that might have had access to Luke’s writings would have heard this as a direct confrontation with the claims of Rome. If Luke was written early and was also being read by Jewish readers, they might have included some of their own nobility in what they heard, and certainly would have assumed that Mary’s words were intended to include people such as the Herods and the High Priestly clan of her time. What is amazing is that Mary, in the tradition of the great Jewish prophets, states that God’s ultimate goal is “as good as done.” (Gr. uses past tenses for this as “as good as done” prophetic promise.) In short: Rome, Herod, and the high priestly clan are already on the losing side of where history is going. Mary, Elizabeth, and their yet-to-born babies are joining God’s already-decided final outcome. That is the real Christmas story.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:10-14)
The passage above, which we tend to present in our Christmas pageants as “sweet,” is actually a direct confrontation with the mighty ones—both political and military—of the Roman Empire. Augustus Caesar was designated “Savior of the world.” Rome saw itself as the decider of who deserved “Roman Peace/Pax Romana” because of Roman “favor.” Jewish people were consistently in tension with the empire because they would not bow before Caesar as “Lord.” Roman proclamations were heralded across the empire as “Good News” for the world. And, the reason Pilate is willing to execute Jesus is because Romans wanted no more bloody uprisings of Jewish people who thought they had a “Messiah” in the wings.
What is the real Christmas story? It is that God has an entirely different “Savior,” “Lord,” “Good News,” and “world peace” in mind. And, not only can Caesar not stop it or top it, Caesar even unwittingly chooses to play into it, in spite of himself.
Why is all of this background important to how we read the “Christmas story?” Because, for at least 500 years, our Western Culture has been the “Rome” of the modern era of world history, and now the USA is the uncontested world leader of that political and military domination.
We dare not begin by reading these intentionally confrontational passages without situating ourselves where Mary and Luke (dare we include the angels and the “Mighty One”?) would situate us. We belong to Rome in terms of world history.
It is true that as believers we may also choose to allow God to “add” us to Israel. Thus, we might fairly read these passages while identifying both with the culture of the mighty and with the culture of the oppressed. However, we will get it all wrong if we do not see ourselves as belonging to the culture that can demand that the whole world respond to us. We have to move as far as Cornelius (Acts 10-11) had to move in order to not only have one foot in the “world empire,” but also one foot in the “Israel of God.” How does one have one’s heart where Mary’s heart is when even the poorest of us Americans have our life so solidly planted in “Rome” with the “high” and the “rich?”
In short: Does God want to confront us with the real “Christmas story?”
As always, if you have any questions or thoughts about this post, or if there is another topic you’d like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy your questions and thoughts!