THE CHRISTMAS we celebrate in the western world in the first quarter of the C21st is an unwieldy mish-mash of sentimentality, rampant commercialism, tempered religiosity, honest paganism, the mass slaughter of animals, family hospitality and seasonal goodwill.
It is primarily about comfort and consolation fed by consumption, not the irruption of disturbance or an invitation to change.
By contrast, the nativity and infancy narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke are filled with subversive and gentle-but-firm revolutionary hope.
They are about where and how such a hope is born, from what (and whom) it arises, what it does to our current ordering of the world, and how we might re-frame our lives in relation to its promise.
To understand these stories properly it is necessary to recognise their backdrop: an empire that demanded and enforced subjugation (Pax Romana); peasant classes pushed to the margins; periodic revolts which were violently suppressed (like Sepphoris in 4 BCE); the general quietude of religio licita (“permitted religion”), and a receding of hope in deliverance from such tyranny.
Luke 2. 1-38, in particular, presents the arrival and reception of Jesus as being in direct conflict with the Imperial cult of Caesar. The birthday of the Roman emperor-god Augustus was proclaimed as “good news for the whole world” – that is, the world held captive by the military might of empire.
By contrast, the angelic messenger announces Jesus’s birth as “good news for all the people” – that is, a message of liberation for those subjected to the oppressive world order imposed by Caesar. (His followers went on to adopt titles for him which consciously usurped those employed by the emperor, such as ‘Son of God’.)
The chronologically confusing reference to Quirinius’s census is often cited by scholars as a narrative device to bring Mary and Joseph, who were residents of Nazareth, to Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, in order to secure Jesus’ lineage in accordance with the messianic tradition.
But there would surely have been easier ways of achieving this connection faced with historical obscurity. So why is it featured so prominently?
Well, by including a direct reference to registration for taxation (the system by which both economic and military control is secured on the backs of subjugated people) the gospel writer is linking the arrival of Jesus to the subsequent accusations against him – in chapters 20 and 23 – of leading a refusal to pay tribute to Caesar.
This is something which is widely misrepresented by readings which assume a division of religion from politics, and which therefore take “giving Caesar what he is due” as meaning the opposite of the comeuppance the followers of a rabbi (one who notably did not carry a coin bearing the likeness of the emperor) would have likely understood.
Equally, it is not a royal court that receives and heralds Jesus, but first a group of marginal shepherds living under its yolk (2. 8-18), then Simeon, a just man who celebrated the liberation of his nation from occupation, even as he foresaw the opposition it would cause (2. 22-35), and finally Anna, an impoverished widow, who spoke of the child to those who longed for this deliverance (2.36- 38).
All of this is of course prefigured by Mary, the mother of Jesus, singing joyfully (1:46-55) of a God who will “cast down the mighty from their seats”, “exalt the humble and weak” and “send the rich away empty”. That the promise of this child is to turn the empire and its expectations upside down could not be clearer.
Meanwhile, in Matthew’s gospel (1.18-2.23), the emperor’s delegate – Herod, the Roman client king of Judea – recognises (1. 3-4) and seeks to thwart the threat to imperial power which the infant Jesus represents. His parents seek refuge in a foreign land (13-15). Herod duly embarks on an orgy of genocidal rage (1. 16-18). But even after his demise the threat continues under Archelaus, before the family end up back in Galilee (1. 19-23) again.
Once more, while the historical details are questionable, the intention is clear. This child, born in obscurity and poverty, defenceless and helpless in worldly terms, is the nemesis of imperial rule – opposed in his very being and constitution to the kind of power (and religion) embodied in coercion, domination, competition, manipulation, abuse, scapegoating, and ultimately murderous exclusion.
The promise here is not that of a vengeful, conquering hero; the kind of revolutionary who turns the system’s own weapons on itself, only to be overcome by another version of the very type of power that crushes the people who trusted themselves to it. Nor is it that of a wise monarch ruling from above: the magi, instead, bow before his humility (Matthew 2. 1-12).
No, the politics of Jesus are located in a movement of popular change and reversal (metanoia) rooted in love of both neighbours and enemies, economic sharing, communal equality, forgiveness, peacemaking, releasing captives, free healthcare, gratuitous hospitality, welcoming the stranger, overturning the money system’s tables, and refusing Caesar’s ethics and patronage altogether. In other words, a new and alternative way of living.
Professor André Myre summarises the message succinctly: “In spite of the Empire’s apparent victory, in spite of its seemingly unbreakable power, Christmas lets us foresee its defeat. It is thus the most subversive of feasts. It speaks of the importance of the losers, the dignity of the oppressed… the choice of God to be found with the humiliated ones, God’s habit of living at the bottom of the ladder, with God’s own.
“On the one hand, Christmas gives value to all that the Empire abhors. On the other, it radically devalues all that the Empire is proud of: power, control, sophisticated armaments, contempt, the claim to have God on its side”.
Christian author and activist Symon Hill puts it another way, but with equal force: “When Jesus was born, King Herod tried to kill him. When he was an adult, the Roman Empire crucified him. Christmas is about someone who threatens the powers and values of this world. We are offered a choice: the king or the baby; the power of violence or the power of love.”
In the 1700 year-long era of Christendom (a core condition of which has been that organised Christianity becomes privileged and at ease in hierarchically-established social, cultural, spiritual and political realms) the biblical story of what we now know as Christmas has been domesticated, spiritualised, and ultimately accommodated within further layers of domination.
These are enshrined, in our time, by a neoliberal global economic hegemony which is literally destroying planet and people, and to which we are all continually required to pay tribute through wage labour, consumerism and obeisance to ‘market forces’. The new matrix of Caesar and Mammon.
Right now, we are confronted with climate crisis and loss of biodiversity, obscene and damaging concentrations of wealth, continued poverty and inequality, the threat of further pandemics, war and human rights abuses, patriarchal power structures, and the resurgence of racism, white supremacy and populist authoritarianism.
In order to address these challenges we need a massive turnaround in values, systems, ways of seeing and ways of living.
Despite the corruptions of religion, the Christian story understood from “the underside of history” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) constitutes precisely such a practical invitation to this scale of spiritual and political transformation in society and in the human heart.
For as Roberto Mangabeira Unger has observed, in addition to the cultivation of subversive memory and narrative, “hope is best understood not as the cause of action but as the consequence of action.”
* In memory of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who died in Cape Town at the Oasis Frail Care Centre during the morning of 26 December 2021.
Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Doubleday, 1977, 1993).
Terry Eagleton, Hope Without Optimism (Yale University Press, 2019).
Richard A. Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context (Wipf & Stock, 2006).
André Myre, ‘Christmas and the Confrontation of Empire’, The Way, 44/1, January 2005, pp.21-32.
David Newheiser, Hope in a Secular Age: Deconstruction, Negative Theology, and the Future of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
‘Dorothee Sölle’s Rediscovery of the Christmas Message’, The Bias Magazine, 24 December 2021.
© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia. His next book Against the Religion of Power: Telling a Different Christian Story will be published in Spring 2022, and his recent articles on this site can be found here.