The Gospel of Christmas: Empire or Revolution?

Books, writings, and stories about the “beginning” of things are often mythical in nature. The stories my mother tells about my “beginnings” are, like any mother’s stories, mythical in nature. My grandmother, even more than my mother, could tell mythical tales about me and my brothers at a greater height than anyone I’ve ever known. According to her, my father was a god.

When origin stories are not about our children but about our nation or our people, things can get out of hand. The narratives about the birth of the United States are problematic. For one thing, the events depicted never happened. That’s not unusual. However, when things that never happened are recounted as gospel, that’s when trouble begins. The Plymouth Rock narratives are sort of (kind of) true, but the myth about a barren land, about a divine hand of providence, and about one nation under God are all imaginings of colonial power seeking reasons to steal land. Canada may not have the same zeal for myth as its neighbor to the south, but the pattern of colonialism remains as does the appeal to the Christian gospel for reasons to steal.

An origin story was also very important to the Roman empire. Like America, Rome needed reasons to claim lands that did not belong to them, and like the colonialists of America it found those reasons in the myths of its religion. For Rome, the hand of providence was not the Christian God but Jupiter—Rome’s version of Zeus. Instead of the pilgrim fathers, the promises were made to Romulus. In the Aeneid, the Roman version of Genesis, Jupiter says of Romulus, “He shall call the people Romans, after his own name, [and I shall] set no limits to their fortunes and no time; I give them empire without end” (Aeneid Book I, 385f). The Romans are blessed through their God by the medium of their Moses, who was Romulus, the bearer of the promise.

Let’s focus on those words from Jupiter. With a slightly different way of translating the Latin, they say, “the Roman empire shall last forever without end.” In comparison, in the good news the angel Gabriel announces to Mary about her child, Luke’s gospel states that “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:33). Luke has taken Roman language from the Roman myth to create a new myth about a new empire which, at the moment, is known only to the poor peasant girl Mary. A bit later in Luke, this amazing new empire to come is announced to shepherds in a field out in the middle of nowhere. The new empire has humble origins. It is far from being Rome, but it is described with the same words and the same promise. The problem of gospel and empire lies in full view in the myth woven by Luke.

An empire does have many good things about it. Monty Python made this fact a comical feature in The Life of Brian. To the question, what have the Romans ever done for us? a long list of advantages can be composed. Some of those advantages, like the aqueducts, are still a marvel today. In our time, against the question about what the empire does for us, we can add electricity, public education, and the internet. Empires create the infrastructure upon which economies flourish. Without imperial structures, it’s hard to have vast networks of exchange. Like it or not, there needs to be common ground, and empires provide that ground.

At this time of year when Luke’s announcement about a new empire is remembered, are we to conclude that Luke, like all visionaries, is only re-issuing the same old story in new clothing? After all, the empire that would eventually arrive in the name of Jesus was only Rome of a different feather. Is the gospel of Christmas simply a re-worded gospel of empire?

It is possible that there are no final answers to this significant question, but here are some differences that set Luke’s version of things apart from Rome’s version. For one, the song of Mary holds these words: “[the mighty one] …has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree, has filled the hungry with food, and has sent the rich away empty handed” (1:52–53). Although empires, like Rome, start with humble stories, they do not usually conclude with the poor being the heroes. Rome certainly felt that it was “feeding the hungry,” but it accomplished this act by making deadly certain the rich prospered. The point of bread and circus was to make sure the riches of empire were saved for the rich.

Luke also has Jesus announce in his first “sermon” that his intention is to “preach good news to the poor,” which is what Caesar Augustus thought he was doing, but in the case of Jesus the means to that end is to “release the captives” (4:18). For Caesar, preaching good news to the poor involved enslavement, captivity, and oppression. It was the poor, for Caesar, who were the labor of good news. The poor, ironically, provided the labor needed for programs to feed the poor. The empire was a type of self-perpetuating poverty machine. Luke has Jesus announce that this system of exploitation is coming to an end.

The final element in Luke’s story of the beginning of things is the manger scene. Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem, and Jesus is born there and placed in a manger. The reason Mary and Joseph must travel to Bethlehem is that Caesar has decreed a census “for the whole world” (all the world). The Greek word for decree here is “dogma.” That this dogma applies to the whole world is fantastic even in Roman times. Luke has created an exaggerated expression of Roman imperial power causing Jesus to be born away from home, actually homeless, in stark poverty, and placed in a manger. No matter how thorough the census, it is unimaginable that it could include a baby lying in a manger. The mythical power of Caesar is contrasted in Luke with a mythical story of poverty. The reader and the hearer of this story must choose between two myths about empire. Is empire about who counts or who cannot be counted?

The problem of empire does not go away in Luke even when Luke places the new empire squarely in solidarity with the poor. The historical Jesus spoke in parable about the empire of God, and Luke speaks in mythic legend about a non-Roman empire that will have no end. In both cases, there is still an empire. We might conclude that empires are a necessary evil, but there is still a difference between Luke and Rome. The empire that Luke imagined permanently critiqued the empire that Rome was. Luke spoke from the ground up, and Luke announced a new empire established this same way.

Politicians then and now do not share Luke’s point of view. The priority is to make sure there is wealth, and then to tell the poor how lucky they are that this wealth will work its way down. Meanwhile, as the poor wait for this miracle, they must service the wealthy with their minimum wages and their suffering in unaffordable living conditions.

Christmas is about good news. But it is very difficult in an empire to understand that the good news is a revolution.

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