If the legacy of a Victorian Christmas is a celebration of domesticity with a flavour of charity, Luke’s Christmas is altogether an edgier and hard-hitting affair.
Take Mary for example.
Gabriel tells her that she will be the mother of the long-promised Messiah: God’s annointed son; a king in the line of David whose kingdom will never end; a saviour of Israel; born through the power of the Spirit of God.
The context of course is centuries of occupation, oppression, violence, rebellion by various empires that had culminated in the Roman’s annexation of Palestine in 63 BC. Client kings and a Roman Procurator ruled with iron fists. taxation was crippling, religious freedoms were heavily constrained.
Mary’s experience is as a young Jewish peasant girl growing up under foreign Empire and, like her co-religionists, longing for a better day when the blessing of God would revisit his chosen people.
And so in her Magnificat, politics and faith are intertwined.
She praises God, for in her ‘humble state’ he, the almighty one, has stooped down to intervene. And what an intervention. She above all women has been chosen to bear the Messiah.
She acknowledges the power of God; the proud are scattered, rulers like Caesar are brought down from their thrones. Mary is singing of political revolution.
The rich will be sent away empty, the humble and hungry will be lifted up and fed. Mary is singing of social revolution.
She celebrates that God is faithful; he has kept his promise to Abraham and therefore to Israel. Their saviour is coming. The saviour is not, as was routinely claimed in those days, the Emperor Caesar Augustus – the ‘saviour’ bringing peace, stability and civilisation to the known world. Mary sings of a far greater saviour. Mary is singing of spiritual revolution.
What happens next confirms how God’s kingdom and the Empire of Rome begin to clash.
Jesus is born in Bethlehem, away from family and support structures, due to the edict of a distant Emperor demanding a census. Matthew tells of how the birth precipitates brutal bloodshed as Herod attempts to eradicate a possible political threat. He also tells of Mary, her child and Joseph becoming political refugees, seeking asylum in Egypt.
At each step Mary experiences the political, social and spiritual consequences of being chosen to bring the Messiah into the world. This Christmas account is a long way from a cosy, private domesticity that leaves the wider world pretty well as it is.
Rather it’s a tale proclaiming that the greatest power structures in existence are being radically reconfigured. Things will never be the same again. A new king is coming. God is not far off. He is alive and active and present in the midst of oppression and injustice. A new kingdom is arriving.
This second Christmas tale leaves us with questions about how we understand the world, who is in charge and where is it going. It points us way beyond a myopic focus on ourselves and our families to a much bigger picture.
It calls us, like Mary, to celebrate the redemptive actions of the living God.
“My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”
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