Merry Christ-mess

We have certainly made a mess of Christmas. But I think originally, when the birth festival was first being celebrated it would have had just the opposite effect. Christmas, or advent, would have made a mess of society, it would certainly have stirred things up amongst the Romans and it may have been quite a mess, a danger, for those first Christians to celebrate. Rather than being a part of or even a manifestation of culture as it is today, with all it’s commercial and consumerist “traditions,” it was quite counter-cultural.

At the time of Christ’s advent the Romans ruled the world and they did it brutally and forcefully but claimed that their violence and conquest was for the purpose of Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) ushering in an eternal and universal reign of peace and prosperity. Prior to Jesus coming, in 17B.C., a strange star shone in the sky, maybe a comet or something like that, people believed that that star was a sign, the sign of Caesar Augustus’ father Julius going to heaven, ascending to the right hand of God the Father, Zeus. Caesar Augustus thus, believing that if his father was God then he indeed must be the son of God, inaugurated a twelve day celebration of his own birth, a celebration with which the gospel writers along with all of the first Christians would have been quite familiar, a celebration called advent or the advent of Caesar. He believed that he was the “Son of God” coming to earth to bring about Pax Romana.

Now, when Jesus came, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the vast majority of the wealth in society, something like 95%, belonged to a very small percentage of the population, something like 5%. That means that a few are very, very rich and many are very very poor. Jesus’ family was part of that massive and massively poor population. Jesus’ father, Joseph, was a displaced carpenter who had at some point shamefully lost his family land and Mary was among the anawim, the “poor ones” the poorest in an already poor community. Why was the society like this? Because in order to promote the conquest of Rome, Caesar had to fund his army, to do this he had to tax the people over whom he ruled, he had to tax the people he conquered and he taxed them quite heavily. These taxes were taken by “tax collectors,” people who stood between the people and their oppressors and who essentially robbed from the poor and gave to the rich. Jesus was among the poorest. Jesus is one of those whom Rome is oppressing under the banner of Pax Romana. In fact, it is upon a Roman cross that Jesus suffers his brutal death.

Imagine what it would have been like to celebrate the advent of Christ in a world that celebrated the advent of Caesar. Imagine what a mess it would have made for the Romans and their rulers to have a corner of their empire worshiping and celebrating the birth of a Jewish child who was crushed under Pax Romana. Imagine celebrating, in the face of Rome, the coming of the one who cannot be defeated by Roman crosses. Who, rather than being put on display as a traitor on the cross, put Rome on display for what it really was. Imagine trying to promote the peace of Rome to those proclaiming the peace of Christ whose victory did not come by the sword but by forgiveness. Whose peace makes more sense? Imagine how a Roman emperor would feel about anyone else being called the Son of God.

Imagine living in those days and reading the gospel narrative out loud in your community, reading “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” and “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people… a Savior has been born to you,” and “on earth peace to men.” This Christmas story would have been quite different from what the culture was celebrating. As the culture was celebrating the birth of and imposter savior, a conqueror, those who were “more than conquerors” were celebrating the advent of Christ, the true Lord and the true bringer of peace. What a mess that would have made.

But that’s all in the past, right? We have no imposters on the throne of Christmas. Ah, but don’t we? Look around, just what is it that culture celebrates in the advent season? Are they celebrating Jesus’ coming, the coming of one who can never be defeated by the wealthy and the brutal and in whom we will not suffer any such defeat? No they celebrate the coming of presents, of gifts from stores bought with money on which is printed “In God We Trust”. Our imposter may not be a Roman emperor but it has conquered our society with no lesser degree of oppression. Our culture follows Caesars’ star, not to any manger but to capital gain and “economic stimulus.” Upon the throne of Christmas sits a Scrooge, the almighty dollar which we believe can save us. It is celebrated by shoppers and commercials and Christmas specials from sea to shining sea. Surely there is a corner of this empire in which they are making a mess of such a celebration, surely there is still a corner in which people declare Christ is lord, in which the revolution of Christmas is still a reality. But alas, the Church may have been conquered as well. The Christian celebration of Christmas has been so confused with that of culture that you can hardly tell them apart. Christians too are awaiting the coming of wrapping and ribbons and snowman sweaters. The culture does not feel threatened as perhaps Caesar did in those early years. This culture loves the Christian celebration for it as well makes jingle sounds, not only of sleigh bells but of jingling coins and capital. What changed? When did we get lost in the Christ-mess? When did we stop making a mess of Caesars’ advent? What can we do to join again in that revolutionary birth festival, the advent of Jesus Christ the Lord, and to make a mess of this thing they call Christmas?

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