The very familiarity of the Christmas story -- and the way it blends in with the many other familiars of the season -- is our greatest obstacle. Familiarity breeds inattention. It is what is hidden in plain sight that we do not see. Among those things to which we go deaf and dumb is this one: The Christmas story is a protest against empire.
No, this is a not a political movement complete with graffiti and guerrillas. It is more subtle than that, but for that very reason, all the more telling. For both Luke and Matthew, the claims of empire are disputed. What are the claims of empire? Chief among them is that the story of the empire is the real story. A corollary is that there is no other reality than the imperial version. The third of the empire's assertions is that the peace of the world shall be obtained when all peoples conform to the empire and its monoculture.
Luke begins his deconstruction of the empire's claims in the opening sentence of the Christmas story: "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered." What an awesome power that can order the entire world to be registered. Two verses later, Luke reports that because of the imperial project, an obscure carpenter and his pregnant fiancee journeyed to his ancestral village: "Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David."
Without putting too fine a point on it, Luke reports the emperor's folly. By his plan to enroll and count the entire world, the great Caesar -- who claimed divinity -- unwittingly brought to fulfillment ancient prophecy: The Messiah shall be born in tiny Bethlehem, the city of David. The divine Caesar and his empire had become servants of a power that transcends all earthly power. Ever so subtly, Luke asserts that the power of the empire is neither final nor is it ultimate. There is another power at work in the world. At work through ordinary people, obscure stories and tiny towns. Thus does the Christmas story puncture the pretensions of empire.
In Matthew's story of the birth of Christ, the empire in the person of Rome's appointed king, Herod, moves from distant background to menacing foreground. The empire is no longer represented, as in Luke, as powerful but unwitting. For Matthew, the empire is frightened and dangerous.
When the magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem, these wise men did a foolish thing. They asked around about the birth of one who was "king of the Jews." When word of their inquiry came to Herod, he summoned the wise men and instructed them to search diligently for the child. "And when you have found him," said Herod, "bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." Herod, of course, had no intention of worshipping the infant king. He planned to kill him and assure his own power. When the wise men gave Herod the slip, he flew into a rage and sent soldiers to kill all the infants anywhere near Bethlehem.
That the Christmas story is a protest against empire may not be noted much among us not only because of the blinding familiarity of the story, but also for another reason. We are the empire, the world's sole and reigning superpower, whose military and economic power stretches to every land. The American empire is, I hope and believe, more benign than many of its predecessors, but for Americans today, the Christmas story brings not only comfort and joy, but caution and challenge.
Our American story, whether told as the story of political freedom or of free markets, is not the only story. There are other cultures and peoples whose stories bear their own truth and power -- and which deserve our respect. Moreover, God has a story, too, and this story tells us that things are not always what they seem to be. Most of all, the Christmas story warns against the Achilles' heel of every empire, pride and pretension. In her song of ecstatic praise, the Magnificat, Mary sings of God who "has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their thoughts." "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." If the Christmas story once again warms our hearts, as I hope it does, it is also a story that sends a chill upon every empire.
Anthony Robinson, a pastor of the United Church of Christ, is a speaker and teacher. His newest book is "What's Theology Got to Do With It?" from Alban. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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