Growing up, I never thought the story of the first Christmas was very interesting.
Oh sure, it’s a nice story, but for a ten-year-old boy who couldn’t even begin to grasp the meaning of the word “Incarnation,” the Christmas story was the one with the cute baby surrounded by barnyard animals.
But as I got older and the thrill of Santa Claus became a nostalgic memory, different aspects of the Nativity began to shift into focus. Though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, it began to feel as if we were retelling a Disneyfied version of the Nativity out of a misplaced sense of moral obligation and comfort.
Or maybe we just don’t know another way to tell it.
We’ve commercialized, neutered, and romanticized the story of Christmas to such an extent that it has lost its ability to shock and move us to action.
There is an undercurrent of darkness pulsing in the background of this ancient story that we’ve mostly overlooked in favor of feel-good sentimentality and narrative predictability.
As we grow up, this story of the Nativity should scale up with us as we mature, and our awareness of the world increases.
Like I’ve written before, familiarity breeds ignorance, and we can easily become inoculated to the subversive power of these stories when we’re repeatedly exposed to sanitized versions.
The way we tell the story of Jesus’s birth matters — a lot. The way in which Jesus entered the world says a lot about Jesus’s heart for the world. It’s way more than a story about a cute baby hanging out with some farm animals in a small barn.
It’s a bloody story about war, occupation, oppression, and, ultimately, revolution.
The Virgin Mary Had a Son
Mary is young.
More likely than not she’s barely a teenager.
At the onset of her first period, Mary’s family would’ve arranged for her to be married into a family of equivalent status. Women were considered the property of their fathers until they were married and then they became the property of their husbands.
When we’re introduced to Mary in Luke’s Gospel, we’re told she’s engaged to Joseph, a local woodcutter. They live in Nazareth, a rural village of little to no renown.
Joseph is probably about sixteen years old. After the wedding, he and Mary will move into a new room in his parent’s home that he will build during the engagement period.
One night, a divine messenger visits Mary in her sleep and tells her she will soon conceive and give birth to a child who will be called “the Son of the Most High.”
After taking a moment to collect herself, Mary asks the angel a very basic question.
“How will I become pregnant, if I haven’t had sex yet?”
The angel leaves the mechanics of Mary’s impending pregnancy a bit of a mystery, but it does let her know that her future son will reign over a kingdom that “will never end.”
And how does Mary respond to the angel’s message?
Well, she composes a song, of course.
With lyrics like “[the Lord] has scattered the proud,” “brought down the powerful from their thrones,” “lifted up the lowly,” and “sent the rich away empty,” Away in a Manger, this is not.
This is a protest song.
Mary is Jewish, and her people have endured centuries of defeat and oppressive regime changes. Currently, they’re under the heel of the Roman Empire.
A peasant born in a land occupied by a foreign military superpower, Mary is not exactly anyone’s first draft pick to usher divine royalty into the world.
But that’s the point.
Mary’s a nobody and she knows it.
She refers to herself as “lowliness of servants,” and yet accepts the mantle of responsibility granted to her.
Do our depictions of Mary as a peaceful and passive woman really do her true nature justice? Have we sanitized her rebellious spirit to make a subtle point about feminity and motherhood?
Even consistently referring to her as the “Virgin Mary” is a bit disingenuous. Mary is a complex woman, not a “True Love Waits” figurehead; she’s passionate and articulate in a time women aren’t allowed to be formally educated, and she’s feisty enough to question a divine messenger.
In We Make the Road By Walking, Brian McLaren writes,
“The doctrine of the virgin birth, it turns out, isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence. The violent power of top-down patriarchy subverted not by counterviolence but by the creative power of pregnancy. It is though what proud men have considered “the weaker sex” that God’s true power enters and changes the world.”
Mary, mother of Jesus, is a badass, and it’s a shame we’ve mostly reduced her into a virtuous prop known mostly for her meekness and sexual abstinence.
And speaking of shame, under Hebrew Law, Mary could be executed or excommunicated for sexual transgressions (like having a child out of wedlock). It would not be long before petty gossip evolved into threatening accusations.
However, a divine messenger visits Joseph and challenges him to stick by his betrothed — a tall order, for sure, especially within a shame/honor culture. We take the angel’s visit as matter-of-fact, a necessary plot development in a fantastical story, but there must have been a part of Joseph that wondered if he was losing his grip on reality.
Dreams (and convictions) fade over time. As he gazed upon Mary’s gradually swelling belly in the coming months, did he doubt her supernatural explanation? Did he look upon neighbors or Roman soldiers with suspicion, wondering if they were the ones who slept with or raped his betrothed?
We’ll never know. But, regardless of any doubts or suspicion, we do know that Joseph chose Mary.
Maybe he moved up the wedding date, or he took the bullet and told his parents he and Mary slept together prior to the wedding night. Either way, Joseph sacrifices his reputation in order to protect Mary. It will be a mark of shame they — and their unborn son — will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey writes,
“Nine months of awkward explanations, the lingering scent of scandal — it seems that God arranged the most humiliating circumstances possible for his entrance as if to avoid any charge of favoritism…small towns do not treat kindly young boys who grow up with questionable paternity.”
Mary and Joseph in this together now,
and there’s no going back.
Little Town of Bethlehem
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone went to their own town to register.”
For more than 400 years, the tiny nation of Israel had been conquered and occupied by no less than six power-hungry nations. Caesar Augustus is the supreme leader of the Roman Empire, the next military superpower to claim ownership of the “land of milk and honey” once reserved for the freed slaves who’d escaped the Egyptian Pharoah.
Some royal titles reserved for Caesar Augustus included “Son of God,” “Savior of the World,” and “King of Kings.” He’s worshipped as a demi-god.
(Alarm bells should be blaring in your head right now).
In the ancient world, a census wasn’t about mapping demographic shifts or population growth. The census is about paying taxes to the Roman Empire.
This was a huge source of dissension for the Jewish people.
Imagine paying taxes that funded your own nation’s occupation by a foreign power.
Joseph is originally from Bethlehem, a small city north of Nazareth. According to Caesar’s decree, he and Mary have to travel to his hometown to register for the census. Bethlehem is an 80-mile walk from Nazareth, and it would’ve taken several days to complete the journey. Mary is likely in her final trimester, and Joseph knows he can’t leave her unattended in Nazareth in the event that goes into labor before he can return.
So, Joseph and the very pregnant Mary join a caravan of travelers headed in the same direction. They talk, gossip, and complain about taxes and the inconvenience of the census registration.
However, upon reaching Bethlehem, they find the city bursting at the seams with fellow travelers and guests. They struggle to find an open bed for the night.
Eventually, they accept an apologetic innkeeper’s offer to spend the night in the inn’s stable. In cities like Bethlehem, stables are located in the lower levels of buildings or in caves.
With the city as busy as it is, the odds of Mary and Joseph being the only family in the stables are slim. And, at some point, Mary goes into labor.
This is her first pregnancy; her first labor.
Most births occurred in the familiarity of the home,
and she’s in a dark cave with a bunch of strangers and animals.
The maternal mortality rate was shockingly high in the First Century.
Mary has probably watched other women bleed out and die in childbirth.
Joseph clutches her hand and whispers frenzied prayers.
He’s frightened, but there are other women helping.
Mary’s heavy breathing and screams echo in the tight space.
The stable reeks of animal manure and body odor.
Her young body is racked by painful spasms and contractions.
Rivulets of sweat plaster her hair to her forehead.
No painkillers. No medical professionals. No sanitation protocols.
There is a rush of blood. And the gurgling cry of a newborn.
A dull blade severs the umbilical cord.
And at that moment,
at the end of a journey to pay taxes to a pagan world empire,
in a dark, cramped, and musty horse stable,
that a young teenager from an oppressed people group gives birth to Jesus.
And the world will never be the same.
O Day of Peace
At the time of Jesus’s birth, King Herod ruled the region Jesus’s family called home.
A half-Jewish ruler, Herod was appointed by Caesar to keep the peace in his corner of the Roman Empire. During his reign, Herod adopted the title “King of the Jews.”
Herod was an extremely paranoid ruler and for good reason. If Rome thought he was doing a poor job, they could take everything away from him — including his life.
There’s also some pretty compelling historical evidence that suggests Herod may have been batshit insane.
he ordered the assassination of his own wife,
and murdered two of his sons — including one by drowning in the palace swimming pool.
And when Herod heard rumors of another “King of the Jews” born in Bethlehem, he ordered the execution of all male infants under two years of age who had been born in the city.
When Mary and Joseph hear about the order, they flee the country. Fleeing violence and persecution, they cross the border into Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.
Yes, Jesus and his family were refugees,
and they were the lucky ones.
How many mothers and fathers placed themselves between the blades of Herod’s soldiers and their baby sons? How many women were left childless and widowed that night?
Do we see the arterial spray sputtering from slashed throats? The newborns hacked and left cold and bloody in their cribs? Do we hear the wailing as parents had their world torn from their fingers?
Though grim and disturbing, we cannot censor this part of the Christmas story.
This is infanticide, pure, and simple. It was a startling act of violence carried out in order to protect those in power. The murdered children and their dead parents will easily be dismissed as civilian casualties or acceptable losses.
If it means maintaining the illusion of security, an Empire will sacrifice its humanity.
The story of the first Christmas is more similar in tone to a season of Game of Thrones than it is a Pamper’s commercial.
At this point, a few people decided they’ve had enough.
When Jesus was about five-years-old, a Jewish man named Judas the Galilean declared himself the Messiah and led a revolt against the Roman taxation of the Jewish people.
After capturing a Roman armory, Judas and his followers waged a ten-year armed resistance against the Roman occupiers. He became a folk hero of sorts, but the rebellion was inevitably crushed when Jesus was about sixteen-years-old.
This is the violent, corrupt, and bloody world into which Jesus was born and raised.
If we want to understand Jesus’s life and message, it’s vital that we understand his political and cultural context.
When Jesus’s early followers shared the story of Jesus’s birth, they weren’t describing a Hallmark card or Thomas Kinkade painting.
In The First Christmas, historians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write,
“Do we think that peace on earth comes from Caesar or Christ? Do we think it comes through violent victory or nonviolent justice? Advent, like Lent, is about a choice of how to live personally and individually, nationally and internationally.”
This is a story that held deep political, cultural, and symbolic meaning for the early Church — and it should for us, as well. Set in a world rife with political instability, economic oppression, and state-sponsored violence, the world of Jesus looks a lot like our own.
And we risk losing sight of the heart of Christmas if we fail to recognize how these two worlds speak into one another.
Welcome to the Darkness
The four weeks leading up to Christmas Day is known as Advent on the liturgical calendar. The word Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “arrival.”
On the night of Jesus’s birth, a divine messenger appears to a group of shepherds tending to their flocks and delivers a stunning birth announcement.
“A Savior’s been born to you,” the angel says. “He is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Savior. Messiah. Lord.
To the shepherds, these words are bigger than abstract theological concepts.
These words speak into the lived-in political and social reality of their daily lives.
It’s telling the angel didn’t make the announcement to a group of pastors, government officials, or investment bankers. In Jewish society, shepherds were looked upon with disgust and disdain. They were at the very bottom of the social ladder.
(Funny how this story keeps circling back to the underprivileged and overlooked, isn’t it?).
After the angel’s announcement, the shepherds make their way down to Bethlehem to pay their respects to the legitimate King of the Jews, the peaceful Messiah, and the merciful Son of God.
The next time you see a Nativity set, really look at it and try to see the truth beyond the woodcut figurines. Because the Nativity is ground zero for a revolution still in motion to this day.
As citizens of the richest and largest military superpower the world has ever seen, the story of a God-king born on bloody straw to an oppressed people group should give us pause.
In We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McLaren writes,
“Jesus isn’t entering a pristine story of ideal people. He is part of the story of Gentiles as well as Jews, broken and messy families as well as noble ones, normal folks as well as kings and priests and heroes. We might say that Jesus isn’t entering humanity from the top with a kind of trickle-down grace, but rather from the bottom, with grace that rises from the grass roots up.”
Tikkun Olam is a beautiful Jewish concept that we could all use a lot more of this holiday season. Translated, it literally means “repair of the world.” According to Tikkun Olam, we’ve all been given a holy task to bring hope and healing into our corner of the world.
And, perhaps even more beautifully, Tikkun Olam suggests each and every one of us has been uniquely equipped by our past and present circumstances for the specific task laid out before us.
If you feel weak, powerless, and abandoned in this wild world, the promise of Advent gently reminds us that we have not been forgotten while guiding us toward acts of redemptive participation.
But it’s also a warning to the governments, corporations, and institutions that use their power to oppress, exploit, dehumanize, shame, and destroy.
In Hidden Christmas, pastor Timothy Keller writes,
“Christmas, therefore, is the most unsentimental, realistic way of looking at life. It does not say, “Cheer up! If we all pull together we can make the world a better place.” The Bible never counsels indifference to the forces of darkness, only resistance, but it supports no illusions that we can defeat them ourselves.”
You can dismiss the fantastical elements of this story as bullshit (and, to be honest, it’d be hard to blame you), but I believe this story is more than ancient folklore from the distant past.
For one, I hope it’s true. If there is an all-powerful Supreme Being, I really can’t think of a more counter-intuitive way it would choose to interact with the world than through the life of Jesus.
And second, it’s a story that helps us connect the past to the present while inviting us to work toward a more generous and just future.
Amid the onslaught of breaking news updates, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and overburdened by the brokenness of the world. I imagine Mary, Joseph and everyone else gathered in that underground stable that night felt the dark and oppressive weight of history bearing down upon them.
The newborn Jesus, gurgling and crying in a stone feeding trough, is the least likely and strangest part of this story. Vulnerable, defenseless, and dependent, what are we to make of this God?
From first breath in the manger to dying gasp on the cross, the life of Jesus isn’t meant to provide answers to a world filled to the brim with suffering. Instead, we are shown a God who suffers alongside and on behalf of the weak, sick, downtrodden, and forgotten.
Hope is not born out of comfort and contentment.
Hope is birthed from darkness and despair.
In the end, this is a story about a flicker of hope when all other light has gone out.
In Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges writes,
“Hope exists. It will always exist. It will not come through structures or institutions, nor will it come through nation-states, but it will prevail, even if we as distinct individuals and civilizations vanish. Love will endure, even if it appears darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains.”
It’s a reckless and foolish hope.
But it is hope, nonetheless.