The Politics of Christmas
January 8, 2012
May I wish you, again, a happy Christmas!
Yes, I know that, for the secular world, Christmas is behind us, all the decorations have been taken down, and we’re well into the New Year.
But in the church year, the season of Christmas continues until Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on February 2nd; and although we are now into the part of the Christmas season we call Epiphany, on this particular Sunday we are actually hearing another version of the story of Christ’s birth. This time, not Luke’s version with the Annunciation to Mary, the census, the journey to Bethlehem, the child in the manger, the visit of the shepherds, the presentation in the Temple and the peaceful return to Nazareth; but Matthew’s version, with the Holy Family living in Bethlehem, the annunciation to Joseph, the magi led to see the new born baby by a star, their visit to King Herod, their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, their return home by another way, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, and the family’s decision to live in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem when they return. Two very different narratives, but asking the same questions and giving the same answers about who this child is, and what it means to follow him.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was roundly criticised in some quarters for his Christmas Day sermon,which some people thought was ‘too political’. Politics can be defined as ‘of, for or relating to citizens’ or as ‘the process of human interaction by which groups make decisions’. Whichever definition of politics you use, the whole of the Bible, the Gospels and the Nativity stories in Luke and Matthew are about politics.
Do you remember the series of comedies starring Rowan Atkinson called ‘Blackadder’? In the one set in Tudor times, Miranda Richardson, playing a rather petulant Queen Elizabeth I had a catch phrase, which she produced whenever anyone disagreed with her: “Who’s Queen?” And that question is what the Nativity narratives are all about. Who is in authority, who wields ultimate power, whose laws do we obey?
Luke, writing for a predominantly Greek audience asks: who is the emperor, who is the Son of God, who is the Prince of Peace, who is the Saviour of the world? Is it the Roman Emperor Augustus, to whom all these titles were given at the time? Or is it Jesus?
Matthew, writing for a predominantly Jewish audience, asks who is the King of the Jews, who is the Son of David, who is the Messiah, who is the successor of Moses? Is it King Herod, the puppet king, installed by the Roman Emperor; or is it Jesus?
Matthew’s Nativity story demonstrates that Jesus is greater than the Roman Emperor, by mirroring the myths about the founding father of the Emperor’s dynasty with the story of the journey of the Magi. The imperial mythology tells of a star which led the ancestor of Augustus, Julus, his father Aeneas and his grandfather, westward from the doomed city of Troy to found the Roman race. Matthew tells of a star which led the wise men westward to worship the new born King of the Jews.
But Matthew also wants to show that Jesus is greater than, and is the summation of, all the leading figures of the Old Testament, and in particular the law giver, Moses, and the iconic king, David.
The Jews believed that Moses was the author of the Torah, contained in the first five books of the Old Testament. So Matthew includes in his Gospel five great discourses, giving the new Torah; and this pattern of five occurs also in his birth narrative, which is like the Gospel in miniature. There are (very unusually for a Jewish genealogy) five women mentioned in the list of Jesus’s ancestors; there are five dreams which guide Joseph and the Magi; there are five mentions of the town of Bethlehem; there are five texts of the Old Testament which illuminate the events of Jesus’s birth.
Matthew’s birth story also mirrors closely the non-biblical elaboration (targum or midrash) of the story of the birth of Moses. First century Jews and Christians would have been very familiar with these, but we miss the echoes, both because we don’t know these stories, and because we rarely read or hear the whole of Matthew’s story. Usually the visit of the Magi is tagged onto the end of the end of Luke’s nativity story, and we never hear the climax of the story, the killing of the baby boys in Bethlehem, (unless the Feast of the Holy Innocents falls on a Sunday – and we all know how small congregations are on the Sunday after Christmas!). Yet Matthew wrote about this slaughter as a direct parallel to the slaughter of the Hebrew boy children by the Pharoah.
In the Moses midrash the Pharoah has a dream that a Hebrew boy will be born who will threaten his power. So he decrees that all Hebrew boys are to be drowned at birth. The Hebrew men vow to divorce their wives, so they don’t produce any more boys. But Moses’s father is told in a dream to remarry his wife, as their son will be the saviour of Israel. He does so, and the child is protected and survives the slaughter of the babies to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.
In Matthew’s version, Joseph (another name that harks back to the time in Egypt) vows to divorce his wife after finding she is pregnant. He is told in a dream to take her back, which he does. Herod finds out about the child from the wise men, and attempts to kill him, but through messages given in dreams, the child is protected and escapes to Egypt. When the danger is passed, in a new Exodus he returns to Nazareth to grow up, and eventually begin his ministry.
The Moses midrash is not the only Old Testament reference in Matthew’s birth story. The references to Bethlehem, and to the king who will be a shepherd to his people, refer back to the story of David, the greatest Jewish King. The five prophecies refer back to the prophet Isaiah and the threat from Assyria, the hope for a restoration of the Davidic kings, the Exodus, the Exile in Babylon and the time of the Judges. As we heard in our first reading, Matthew also draws on passages in Isaiah and the Psalms (particularly Psalm 72 on which Hail to the Lord’s Anointed is based); these refer to foreign nations and kings being drawn to the light of God in Jerusalem, and bringing gifts of gold and incense. Other passages which influenced his story include the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24, 15-19 and the dreams of Daniel.
But Matthew’s birth story does not just look back to the Old Testament and its prophets, kings and heroes who served God, revealed God’s will before Jesus, and so prefigured him. It also looks forward, to the climax of the story of Jesus in his death and passion, and his continuing story in the life of the church. The third gift of the magi, myrrh, foreshadows his death. The attempt by the Romans’ puppet king, Herod, to kill a rival King of the Jews, foreshadows the decision of the Roman governor, Pilate to crucify Jesus as King of the Jews. The escape to Egypt foreshadows Jesus’s escape from death through the resurrection.
The star foreshadows the acclamation of Jesus in the Gospels, especially John’s Gospel, Paul and Revelation as the light, which reflects the glory of God; and the Magi, foreigners and pagans who recognise and worship Jesus as the Messiah when the Jewish leaders try to destroy him, foreshadow the Gentiles of Matthew’s church, who recognise and worship Jesus as their Saviour, when many of his countrymen reject him. Matthew’s birth story is filled with joy, like Luke’s, but is much more obviously filled with conflict and foreboding – which perhaps explains why we prefer to ignore many of its details.
But if we do only read ‘the nice bits’ of Matthew, we will fail to hear the message Matthew intended us to hear. Matthew wrote in a tradition that believed that hearing the stories of the past made these events real and effective in the present. His story says that Christmas is not just something that happened two thousand years ago; it happens now, and demands a response from us, as it demanded a response from those who witnessed it then.
It asks us who we are in the story. Are we like the Magi who follow the light, and refuse to comply with the attempts of those in religious and political power who want to extinguish it?
It asks what most completely discloses the divine will for us? The law of Moses or the grace, forgiveness and sacrifice shown by Christ?
It asks what really brings light and peace to the world? The exercise of military and economic power or following the example of a persecuted and crucified Messiah? Peace through military victory or peace through justice?
Matthew’s Christmas story is not a nice story for children, about exotic kings, guiding stars, dreams and strange gifts. It is an adult story, about religion, and power and politics, and how they can be abused. It places before those who hear and read it a choice about the decisions they make, and the guidance they follow.
The Christmas story proclaims the beginning of a new world order, initiated by the birth of Jesus, It challenges all of us to consider what we are being called to do to bring about that new world order in our time, in our church and our town. And that’s politics!
Will we follow his star? Will we bring our gifts to offer to him? How will we pay him homage?