In a way, the president is right: Christmas is political. But not in the way he thinks.
The biblical account of the birth of Jesus Christ is drenched in political significance. His genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew makes Him royalty, the heir of King David. The titles Savior and Messiah, which we imagine are merely religious, carry political connotations of deliverance and liberation. When his mother hymns her Magnificat, she praises a Savior who “has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” (Luke 1:51-52).
None of this was lost on Herod, ruler of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod the Great — Herod the infrastructure king, the tyrant who was the biggest, best, greatest ruler — knew that Christmas meant a rival was in town. When he caught wind that people were paying homage to a “king of the Jews,” he summoned priests and teachers for intel. They reminded him that the prophet Micah had promised that a ruler would emerge from Bethlehem. So Herod unleashed the heinous solution we know as the slaughter of the innocents, which was (he thought) a surefire way to eliminate any pretenders to his throne.
So yes, Christmas is political.
More than that, it is actually the beginning of the end of politics as we know it, not some idol we can deploy to shore up the political status quo. The shape of a Christian politics is not a takeover bid, but a hopeful waiting for a coming King. We expect frustration, disappointment and persecution in the meantime, even while we hope that this country could bear the marks of the “better country” that Abraham and his heirs were looking for.
Christmas is the announcement that the King of Kings has been born, which effectively says to every earthly ruler: “You’re fired. Clean out your desk by the end of the age.”
Left to rule for a time while we await his second coming, political leaders are most Christian when they realize they are penultimate. The British theologian Oliver O’Donovan calls this the “ ‘desacralization’ of politics by the gospel.” In other words, the announcement of the good news should put an end to our tendency to idolize politics and politicians.
The advent of Jesus — the God-man who is a crucified King, a Lamb who rules — means that the days of secular politics are numbered. While we tend to assume that politics is everything, Christmas reminds us that earthly politics will not last. “Merry Christmas!” is like a backhanded way of saying to each other, “This too shall pass.”
Indeed, “the most truly Christian state,” O’Donovan reminds us, “understands itself most thoroughly as ‘secular.’ It makes the confession of Christ’s victory and accepts the relegation of its own authority. It echoes the words of John the Baptist: ‘He must increase, I must decrease.’ ”
Christmas is not a political device that politicians can employ at rallies for their benefit. If they truly believe in the import of this event, they should be humbled and realize that their rule stands under the judgment of a coming King.
So Merry Christmas, Mr. President! You’re fired. There will be an exit interview at the Last Judgment.
James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the editor of Comment magazine. His new book, “Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology,” will be published Nov. 7.