We hear the Christmas stories every year, but have we ever thought how those first Christians might have “heard” them? The Prophetic Promise that God would send a savior had been recounted for 700 years, and still no fulfillment. In fact, the Romans now occupied Judea as well as most of the Ancient Near East (what we call the Middle East today). The Roman Empire had come to be as a result of the military campaign led by Octavian against Mark Antony and Cleopatra. On September 2, 31 B.C., Octavian decisively defeated Antony and Cleopatra in a naval battle off the coast of Greece near a city called Actium. The victory led to the reuniting of the Roman Republic, but led to the shift from democracy to dictatorship. Why? Because Octavian was thought to be the savior of the world. His name was changed to Augustus (meaning “one to be worshipped”) and carried the titles of Savior, Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords. Into that historical setting Jesus was born, told through the Gospel of Luke. Can you see how subversive Luke’s Nativity Story was in light of the realities of living in the Roman Empire? It was literally a clash of kingdoms, God’s Kingdom against the Roman Empire.
Have you ever thought that the Christmas Story might be subversive?
And if it is subversive, what does the story subvert? Does a subversive Christmas Story speak to our world today?
The other Christmas Story, the one told by Matthew, has the same theme, but a different setting, and by reason, a different audience. The main players in the Matthean drama are Joseph, who receives messages from God through dreams, Herod, King of Judea, and the Magi, Gentile visitors from the East. The Gospel of Matthew offers Jesus as a new Moses, and if you know the story of Moses you will see the parallels.
The heart of the comparison is Moses act of liberating the Hebrew people from slavery under the oppression of Pharaoh, and Jesus freeing us all from the slavery to sin, in particular the sin of idolatry. In the one it is a physical liberation, and in the other it is a spiritual liberation.
In both it is a clash of Kingdoms, of reigns, once again.
The Magi, Gentiles, recognize the reign of God as supreme to any earthly king and come to pay homage. Herod responds in violence. Because his kingdom was being threatened by another, a Kingdom rooted in compassion, love, forgiveness. That’s the part we don’t often focus on as part of the Christmas Story, but it’s there. It is referred to as the Slaughter of the Innocents, and is found in Matthew 2:16-18. Warned in a dream, Joseph flees with Mary and their child Jesus to Egypt. They become refugees, migrants seeking safety from the violence happening in their homeland. Eventually Herod dies, and in another dream Joseph is told he can safely return to Judea.
But they cannot go home. Not to Bethlehem, which was their home. No, they are led to the region of Galilee, and settle in a town called Nazareth.
What would it be like to have to leave your home, and travel to a foreign land in order to find shelter, and safety? Where would you go in order to escape the earthly reigns of kingdoms and governments that thrive on violence, lies, oppression, injustice?
Where could you go to experience the power of love and compassion that is at the heart of the Christmas Stories contained in Luke and Matthew? Where would you go?
And know that there is where God has made a home for you.