Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas in the Empire

On Christmas Eve we read a story about how a poor couple named Mary and Joseph were forced by imperial political decrees to pack up, to journey across the countryside (even though Mary was expecting a baby), to hold up in a cow stable, all as the result of Caesar’s enrollment. The Romans had the most power, and the biggest army of any Western country ever to conquer the Middle East. How are you going to keep these Jews in their place if you don’t enroll them? So Caesar Augustus decreed, and cruel King Herod enforced, the order that everybody had to go to the city of his or her ancestors and get registered. Mary and Joseph were Jews, under the heel of the vast Roman Empire, the greatest Empire the world has ever known, with the largest army of occupation — that is until us.

When I read the Christmas story, it is unfair for me to read myself into the places of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, or even the wise men. This was their home. They are under the heel of the Empire, their lives jerked around by imperial decrees.

I live in Rome with Caesar Augustus, or maybe in Jerusalem up at the palace with that King Herod, lackey for the Roman overlords. I’d rather see myself as one of the relatives of Mary and Joseph. I wouldn’t mind being one of the shepherds, out working the night shift, surprised when the heavens filled with angels.

But that is not my place in the story. My place in the story is as a beneficiary of the Empire. I am well fixed. I don’t live up in the palace, but I live in a home which -- with its modern conveniences and security -- the majority of the world’s people would call a palace. I have been the beneficiary of a great classical education, and I am a citizen of a country that has dominated other countries, often without even trying to dominate other countries. We are the Empire.

I don’t like my particular place in the story of the first Christmas.

So when you think about it, in our context, it is odd in a way that so many of us should flock to church on a Christmas Eve. It is a bit strange that we should think that, in Christmas, we hear such unadulteratedly good news, that we should feel such warm feelings, and think that we are closer to God now than at any other time of the year.

I guess we ought to be of the same frame of mind as our cousin, King Herod. When he heard the word about the first Christmas, the Gospels say that he was filled with fear. Give Herod credit. He knew bad news when he heard it. He knew that the songs that the angels sang meant an attack upon his world, God taking sides with those on the margins, the people in the night out in the fields, the oppressed and the lowly.

But for the people up at the palace, the well fixed, the people on top, the masters of the Empire, Christmas was bad news. And many of them were perceptive enough to know it.

So maybe that is why we cover up Christmas with cheap sentimentally, turn it into a saccharine celebration. Maybe, in our heart of hearts, we know that Christmas means that God may not be with the Empire, but rather the Empire may be on a shaky foundation, and that, if we told the story straight, as the Bible tells it, we might have reason, like Herod (when he heard about the first Christmas) to fear.

Let us hear again the song of the angels:

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am brining you good news of great joy for all people: To you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 1:10)

The angel did not say good news for some people. The angel was bold to say good news for all people. All. Though the angel was singing to the shepherds, the angel meant the song for everybody. Herod no doubt had difficulty hearing the song, safely fortified as he was with his troops and his thick walled palace. Herod, the old fox, missed it.

But you haven’t missed it. Even though you are a card-carrying member as am I, of the greatest Empire that has ever ruled, you are in the right place to hear the news.
Good news this day. There is born for you a savior. Our flags, government, armies, cannot save. Only that baby saves. One who is born among the lowly and the poor, only that one saves.

He comes not only for the oppressed, not only for Israel, but for the oppressor, that is, for all. O that we in the Empire could hear that song, O that we could turn back to the Lord, change our ways, bow down before the manger, rather than before our power, acknowledge our need, and pledge allegiance to the Prince of Peace.

Because he is our prince too. He comes to form an empire, not the way this world builds empires, called the Kingdom of God. And he shall reign forever and ever, and of his reign there shall be no end.

Good News. For this day in the City of David is born a Savior, Christ the Lord. Good News for all. Amen.
William H. Willimon


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

TY bishop,
I think you are so right and we all have work to do.
I wish I could figure out how to live for Christ in an real life way, everyday. May we all keep searching for what God has in store for us here in the USA and around the world.

Unknown said...

While I agree with you from my own vantage point (I, too am the beneficiary of all the empire has to offer), there are many of our people who are not. There are some who live in the shadows of the great palaces who starve the same way those on the edges of the empire do. And the good news of God's preferential option for them is just as real as for those on the frontiers. Even those of us who live in palaces do so largely because of the efforts (and sins) of those who came before us. We are cursed by the abundance created by our own efforts, as well as what we have inherited. The baby Jesus has come to liberate us who live under such curse, too.

John Mark said...

This comment is about a month late, but I want to say thank you for the post and for how beautifully you said what you did. As a pastor I long to be ablet to communicate truth clearly and simply (hopefully) winsomely, and you did just that.
Thanks again.

Eric Helms said...

With regard to our Empire in particular, I feel as if I am both a beneficiary and enslaved to it. Whenever I try to live and alternate life--the life of a "resident alien" I find it difficult to find the resources to do so. I want to live faithfully in community and am trapped in the isolated world of suburbia. I want to open up the extra bedroom of my parsonage to a temporary student who can't afford life in NJ, but the trustees are strongly opposed. Sometimes it is possible to be both a beneficiary and a slave--and I pray that Christ can break these handcuffs--even if they be of the golden variety.

William H. Willimon said...

Eric, we can live as "resident aliens" only as long as we are tethered to the Church and its members. Keep working on and with our beloved Church!

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