Op-Ed: Luke’s subversive story of Jesus’ birth
Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus probably conjures sentimental feelings for most people. It might even call to mind the soulful recitation given by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Now, I have nothing against sentimentality, but if that’s all we get out of the story of the birth of Jesus, we are pretty much missing the point. Luke’s deceptively simple tale is subversive. It’s a provocation.
The narrative begins as a heroic poem would have at the time, by mentioning great and powerful leaders, in this case the Roman emperor Augustus and Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria: “Now it happened that at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be made of the whole inhabited world. This census — the first — took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
Luke’s Christmas story provides the interpretive key for reading the entire Gospel narrative.
If common folk appeared in tales and histories from this period, they would have functioned as foils or comic relief. But having invoked the high and mighty, Luke pulls the rug out from under us: It becomes clear that his story isn’t about Augustus and Quirinius at all, but rather about a young couple of no notoriety making their way from one dusty outpost of Caesar’s empire to another. In fact, it is Augustus who will function as a sort of foil to the true king, the helpless child born of Mary.
Luke tells us that the baby king was born in a Bethlehem stable or a cave — a place where animals are kept — because there was no room in a simple traveler’s hostel. Unlike Augustus in his palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome, the authentic emperor arrives unprotected, vulnerable.
We hear that the newborn is wrapped in “swaddling clothes.” That’s a straightforward description but also, I like to think, a metaphor. The high and mighty — like Augustus — were free to do as they pleased; to impose their will on others. Luke is telling us that the true emperor is marked not by self-assertive freedom but rather by a willingness to be constrained by the demands of love.
The story comes to its dramatic climax with the angel’s message to the shepherds. We particularly should not be sentimental when it comes to angels. In the Scriptures, the typical response to seeing an angel is fear; who wouldn’t be afraid in the presence of a powerful entity from a higher world? The heavenly messenger clarifies the kingly nature of the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, identifying him as “Messiah” (one anointed in the manner of King David) and “Lord.” At that point, a “great throng of the hosts of heaven” — more angels — appear and sing the praises of God. The word in Luke’s Greek, which we translate as “host” or “multitude,” is stratias, which means “army.” Our words “strategy” and “strategic” are derived from it. Who had the largest army in the ancient world? It was, of course, Augustus in Rome, which is why he was able to dominate the entire Mediterranean. Luke insinuates not so subtly that the baby king, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, has in fact the more powerful army.
I wish everyone well this Christmas and hope that you have a wonderful time with your friends and families. I also dare to say, “Have yourselves a subversive little Christmas.”
Robert Barron is auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
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