But there is another side to Christmas! Christmas is the story of God’s promise to defeat evil powers, Jesus born to rescue people from tyrants, resistance to imperial powers and faithfulness in the face of empire.
Take the nativity story in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
According to Matthew, Jesus is a new Moses, born to save the people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). He delivers them from Herod, the ruthless Roman puppet king of Judea, who acts like the old Pharaoh in the massacre of infants in his desperation to murder the child destined to replace him as king of the Jews (Matthew 2:1-18). Whereas Herod turned the land of Judea into a place of misery and weeping, Jesus will lead his people in a new return from exile, a new escape from a wicked king, and into a new promised land called “the kingdom of heaven.”
Luke takes an explicitly political approach to the Christmas story. Luke situates the birth of Jesus in the context of a decree by Caesar Augustus for families of the empire to register for a census (Luke 2:1-3). Setting up the story this way, Luke immediately challenges us as to who we think is in charge of the world.
Is it Rome’s son of the divine Julius Caesar or Israel’s son of David? Rome’s Caesar or Israel’s Messiah? Rome’s Sebastos, the venerable one or Israel’s Christos, the anointed one? In particular, the various songs and prophecies uttered by characters in Luke’s nativity make explicit that God’s purposes in Jesus, summarized as “the kingdom of God,” entail social and political liberation from exploitative foreign powers.
Mary’s famous Magnificat could be the manifesto for a Marxist guerrilla group. She celebrates how, “God has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).
For Matthew and Luke, the nativity story is not meant to occasion our “oohs” and “aahs” at cute babies and 6-year olds dressed as wisemen and shepherds. Rather, the nativity is hope for justice, deliverance, and redemption in a world run by predatory empires. Christmas for the evangelists marks the beginning of God’s revolution to make things on earth as they are in heaven all through the son of Mary.
The anti-empire script of Christmas is accented by John of Patmos in his apocalypse, which unveils God’s plan to defeat the Roman empire and to replace it with the reign of his Messiah. This book, The Revelation of St. John, is not a coded mystery of the end times that religious enthusiasts of the 21st century unravel for us. More properly, Revelation shows us what the Roman empire looks like from the perspective of those under its lash, under its boot, and facing the threat of imperial violence. Revelation, as a Jewish apocalypse, is a symbolic species of writing that uses metaphor and marvel to describe in cryptic insider language how God will triumph over the pagan powers of the reader’s day.
How does John describe the nativity? Imagine this: A woman is in the final throes of childbirth, screaming in agony, her legs spread apart, ready to expel the baby from the birth canal. And waiting there with her is a dragon, poised, hungry, leaning over her, eagerly waiting to devour whatever is ejected from her loins. Yet the child escapes from the dragon and he soon rules over the nations with an iron scepter. Sound weird? Well, this is the Christmas story of John as narrated in Revelation 12!
The scene depicts the cosmic battle between the forces of evil and the hosts of heaven as the context for the birth of Jesus. The woman in question is not Mary, rather, she is the messianic community through whom Jesus is birthed. The child is obviously the Messiah, hence the citation of Psalm 2:9 about his rule over the nations. The removal of the child from the dragon is allusive of Jesus’ ascension and exaltation.
Importantly Jesus’ birth and the blood that he sheds as the Lamb of God constitutes the victory of God’s salvation, power, and kingdom over the evil one. In John’s vision, God’s plan to repossess the world from the dominion of darkness is launched in the birth of a child who is destined to defeat the dragon that rages against God’s people.
For the faithful, Christmas is a celebration that God is for us, God is near us, because God was one of us. God comes to us, in the vulnerability of child, to save us from our sins, and to rescue us from the evil forces that oppress us.
Christmas promises us that the despots of this age, political or spiritual, are living on borrowed time. The Christmas story is God’s answer to all the evil, injustice, brutality, suffering and death that we see around us.
Christmas is not meant to be about cheap trinkets for consumer religion. Rather, it is the annual reminder that God’s liberating love will always find us in the darkest corners of the world. Christmas is intended to be a bold political profession by Christians to trust God and to resist empire.
The Rev. Michael F. Bird is academic dean of Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia, and senior research fellow with the Australian College of Theology. He is co-author with N.T. Wright of “The New Testament in its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians.” He can be followed @mbird12.