The Subversive Message of the Christian Nativity by George Wolfe
This is the time of year we hear those beloved Christmas Carols. And if you come from a Christian family like me, you delight in watching children participate in re-enactments of the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. We re-create the pastoral scene of the shepherds, “keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8) to whom appeared a multitude of angels announcing the birth of a Savior. But these portrayals of the Nativity are highly romanticized and omit the underlying theme of struggle that is found throughout the story.
First of all, shepherds stayed up late watching their flock when the ewes were giving birth. They were working overtime, pulling an all-nighter, serving as midwives to assist in the birthing of lambs. They were hardly lounging under the stars, contemplating the night sky.
Second, Mary went into labor while traveling, riding on a donkey. There was no room in the inn, so they had to settle for delivering the baby in a dirty stable. And there was no medication for Mary to take the edge of her pain. The best Joseph could do is improvise a bed out of straw and make use of a manger that was used to feed livestock. It must have been a long sleepless night for the weary parents.
Sometime later, the holy family had to flee to Egypt. They became immigrants to escape the terror of King Herod who would stop at nothing to stay in power. Fortunately, Egypt accepted them as refugees.
The entire story turns the values of our modern world upside down and exemplifies the teaching that in the Kingdom of God, “many who are last will be first, and the first last” (Matt. 19:30). In Luke’s Gospel, the people chosen to receive the announcement of Christ’s birth are not the kings and powerful military leaders, not the legal experts or educated philosophers. Those privileged to hear of the birth are the shepherds who were of a much lower social status. And the Christ child is born to a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock. Jesus entered the world not in the midst of royalty and wealth, but was born to a modest family managing to eek out a living in humble circumstances.
Finally, we read the phrase “Kings of Kings and Lord of Lords” and hear it as a glorified expression of praise. But in the context of the Roman Empire, these words were highly subversive. Roman leaders liked the fact that there were many religious sects. This kept religion unorganized, weak and divided. They could tolerate religion as long as a person paid homage to the Emperor first. When Christians addressed Jesus as “King of Kings,” they were saying he was above the Emperor. These were words of defiance and are one reason why early Christians were tortured.
The Christmas message therefore, is not for the Wall Street billionaires and department store owners. It’s not for powerful politicians or military leaders. Rather, Christmas is for the working poor, the disenfranchised, the homeless, and the teenage single mom who chose to keep her baby and is struggling to finish school so she can support her child. Christmas is for the disabled veteran suffering from PTSD. It offers hope for prostitutes, alcoholics and drug addicts who are desperately trying to survive and turn their lives around.
Christians are people who, like Mary and Joseph, recognize that they are not in control. They realize that the complex economic, political and environmental systems of our world are well beyond our ability to control, and that wealth, political power and intellectualism create only the illusion that we are in charge.
The deeper message of the Christian Nativity is one of struggle, inconvenience, forced displacement and humility. It teaches us to endure that struggle and surrender to a power that is far greater than ourselves. It obligates us to welcome displaced families who are fleeing the horrors dispensed by power-hungry politicians.
So this year when you sing Silent Night, ponder why it is that “shepherds quake” (verse 2), and how an innocent child could be a subversive threat to a powerful empire.
George Wolfe is Professor Emeritus and Coordinator of Outreach Programs for the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He is also chair of the Muncie Interfaith Fellowship, is a trained mediator, and is the author of The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: Interfaith Understanding for a Future Without War.