Before we get to the Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke, we need to backtrack and understand the context in which they were written. When we read any of the biblical stories out of context, their intended meaning eludes us. Whenever we try to understand an event or story from a different culture or era without understanding the context, the history and background, we will not understand the deep or true meaning of the story or event. That is why, each Advent (the few weeks leading up to Christmas), there are particular Biblical readings that seek to provide the broader and deeper story of the Jewish people, their hopes, struggles and expectations that provide a background to this story of hope and challenge at Christmas – they provide a bit of context.
The Jewish homeland had been settled by the offspring of Abraham, the Jewish nation, from the period following the Exodus from Egypt, around 1600-1300 BC. The nation divided into 2 kingdoms: The northern kingdom of Israel, with its capital Samaria, and the southern kingdom of Judah, with its capital of Jerusalem. There seems to have been a relatively long period of independence, although there were constant threats and attacks from foreign nations. The Assyrians threatened the northern kingdom for nearly 20 years and finally and conquered it in 722 BC. They also attacked the southern kingdom and conquered various fortified cities but did not take Jerusalem. Various Old Testament prophets provided interpretations for these events and called the people to faithfulness, holiness and justice.
Though it survived the attacks of Assyria, there were many other threats to the southern kingdom of Judah. It was in the time of the Assyrian threats that the first part of the book of Isaiah was written. In the early chapters there are promises of hope for the people. In Chapter 7 there is the promise that a young woman (mistranslated into the Greek version as virgin) will bear a child. It is uncertain whether this will be a new king in a time of turmoil and uncertainty or an ordinary child. Never-the-less, the promise is clear: there is hope because God promises that life will continue and the people will survive. This is an important verse because it will reappear in the Matthew’ story, albeit in its mistranslated form of virgin, rather than young woman.
The southern kingdom survived through this period of clashes with the surrounding empires until the Babylonians invaded in the early 6th century BC. After a few unsuccessful attempts, the Babylonians finally broke through the wall of Jerusalem and destroyed the city and its temple – the Temple of Solomon. They took the leading citizenry off into exile in Babylon, where the Jewish exiles grieved as the full impact of their crisis was realised. Not only were their city and homes rubble, the house of God, the Temple was in ruins. Was God alive or dead at the hands of the Babylonian god, Marduk? It was in this critical time that Isaiah and other prophets spoke to the people and called them into a renewed relationship with, and understanding of, God.
The Jewish people were under constant imperial rule from successive regimes from this time on. Following the Babylonians there were the Medes and Persians. King Darius gave them freedom and resources to return home and rebuild Jerusalem. Under Alexander the Great a Greek super-empire emerged accompanied by the typical power of domination. The next Empire that ruled over the Jewish homelands was the Roman Empire. These empires (as today) ruled through violence or the threat of violence. Domination of smaller nations to ‘encourage’ them to enter into an alliance and to behave properly was the means of establishing order. It was the Roman Empire that ruled over and dominated the Jewish people prior to and through the 1st century and beyond. Some of this history and the associated mood and expectation comes through to us in the book of Daniel. Although set in the earlier period of Babylonian Exile, this book was really written in the period around 160 BC (or later) and deals with the tyrannical Antiochus IV Epiphanies, who ruled over the Greco-Syrian mini-empire. His attempts to subdue Israel and bring it into an alliance against Egypt were thwarted by the Jewish dynasties of the Maccabees and Hasmoneans who waged war against the Syrians and brought some stability and peace for about 100 years. Pompey’s Romans arrived in the 60’s BC and Israel was brought under the rule of the most powerful empire that had ever existed.
Daniel chapter 7 deals with the responses to empire and offers a vision of different paths of empire. One is the path that deepens through Babylonians-Medes-Persians-Greeks-Romans and the other is the Kingdom of God, heralded by the ‘Human One’ (or Son of Man). It is the promise that God will initiate a ‘Great Divine Clean-up’ of the earth, a humanising kingdom of justice. This stands in deep contrast to the violence and domination of the imperial systems that had ruled over the people. Two ways, two kingdoms that stand in opposition to one another.
Some Roman History: The Power of Rome and the Divine Caesars…
In 49 BC Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the river that divided Italy and he defied the Roman Senate. This resulted in civil war, won by Julius Caesar who became the unrivalled ruler of Rome. He initiated a program of social and political reforms that included the formation of the Julian calendar but he never fully settled the underlying unrest. On the Ides of March in 44 BC a group of senators led by Marcus Brutus assassinated Caesar and a series of civil wars broke out. Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius (who later became Augustus), gained power as part of a triumvirate (with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus). This was later torn apart by the competing egos and ambitions with Marcus Lepidus being driven into exile and Mark Antony committing suicide after being defeated in the Battle of Actium. Augustus became the unrivalled ruler of Rome and ushered in a long period of peace (Pax Romana – Peace of Rome) and prosperity.
In 42 BC Julius Caesar was deified and Octavius took the title Divi Filius, Son of the Divine or Son of God. In 27 BC he was declared Augustus which is close to divinity and then in 14 AD a month before his death he was declared Divus or divine in his own right. Augustus was both Son of God and God as well. Biblical Theologian, Marcus Borg, says: “Roman rule was legitimated by imperial theology. According to it, Caesar Augustus, the greatest of the emperors, was divine. Born Octavian around 63 BCE, he ruled as emperor from 31 BCE to 14 CE. His titles included “God,” “Son of God,” “Lord,” “saviour of the world” who had brought “peace on earth.” He was the product of a divine conception, conceived in his mother by the god Apollo, god of light, reason and order. Augustus brought peace on earth through military victory. At the battle of Actium, he ended the decades-long civil war that had torn the empire apart. Now peace reigned, the Pax Romana, achieved through military victory and sustained by Roman imperial power. All of this, according to Roman imperial theology, was the will of God. Roman theology legitimated Roman Empire. It was omnipresent in the public media of the day: in images, inscriptions, and coins. This was the historical context of Paul (and Jesus and early Christianity). The titles of Jesus – “Son of God,” “Lord,” “Saviour of the world,” the one who brings “peace on earth” – existed before he was born. They were titles of the emperor. When Paul and other early Christians applied these titles to Jesus, they were saying Jesus is Lord and empire is not. What is the difference between these two lordships? According to the seven letters of Paul that are universally seen by scholars as the earliest documents in the New Testament, all written in the 50s, and thus earlier than the gospels: Rome embodied peace through victory and Jesus proclaimed peace through justice and non-violence. Paul and other early Christians created communities radically centred in God that embodied a vision of life together very different from the vision embodied in Roman imperial theology. To see Paul and Jesus and early Christianity in this context is to see how they (and the Bible as a whole) combine the spiritual and the political. Christianity is spiritual – it is about our personal relationship to God (the sacred, what is, reality…). It is about a deeper and deeper centring in God as known in the Bible and especially in Jesus. And equally importantly, it is about participating in God’s passion for a different kind of world – a more just world, fair world, a world of peace and not war. This is “the dream of God” in the Bible and Jesus: a transformed world.” Thus as the young Jesus approached his 20’s Augustus Caesar was hailed as God, Lord, Saviour and peacemaker for the world. He ruled with the might and power of the Roman Empire and dominated the known world through violence. Beneath Augustus were local rulers whose power derived from Rome and Augustus himself. The local authority in the Jewish homelands was Herod the Great, another strong ruler who has a reputation for ruthlessness. King Herod sought to win acceptance as King of the Jews through his rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple but never received such acceptance. Herod was seen as a puppet of Rome rather than a God-appointed ruler of the Jewish people. There was strong economic pressure upon ordinary Jewish people that was exacerbated by severe taxation under Rome and administered through Herod. The Expectations and Hopes of the Jewish People… The Jewish people looked in expectation to God to send the long-awaited Messiah to restore their nation and remove Roman occupation, along with the local rulers. They longed for freedom from the oppression and violent domination of Rome. The Messiah was promised through the prophets but we must note that this person was never anticipated to be Divine! It was an expected ‘heir’ to King David, a military king who reigned over the nation with God’s wisdom and might. Messianic figures had arisen and fallen – Judas Maccabeus, for example – and the Jewish people awaited the true Messiah. High expectation, revolutionary movements, domination through violence, economic changes were all part of the world into which Jesus was born. It was also a world where humans became Divine and significant people were born of virgins and goddesses. It was a world where there was natural exchange between the living and the dead. It was a different world to that which we know and experience. It was into this world that Jesus entered, lived, died and was resurrected. It was in this world he was declared Lord, Saviour, Prince of Peace and Son of God and if we fail to understand how these titles would have been heard and understood, we fail to understand the deep profoundness of these stories of Jesus. Introduction to the Birth Stories of Jesus – Matthew and Luke The stories of Jesus’ birth appear late in biblical history. They are found in 2 biblical accounts (those according to Matthew and Luke – around the 8th and 9th decades respectively). The earliest Christian writings, those of Paul, contain no reference to Jesus’ birth. Nor does the first account of Jesus’ story – that of Mark. The latest account (John) is also silent about Jesus’ birth although it speaks of the eternal nature of the Logos, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. The two stories of Jesus’ birth are quite different with only a few common elements. The Nativity scene, that I well remember from shop front windows, Christmas cards and figurines, never actually appears in the biblical witness. We really have to stretch things and harmonise two very different stories to get anything approaching the Nativity. In so-doing we lose the heart of both Matthew’s and Luke’s stories. Jesus’ core and essential message was that the Kingdom of God, the in-breaking peace (shalom) of God, is available to everyone NOW. It is this way of which Jesus speaks and lives, teaches and proclaims in word and action. God’s Kingdom (Reign or Realm) is here for all people to experience, to find peace and hope. Whilst the phrase, Kingdom of God may have belonged to Jesus it wasn’t a new concept. The way of God was ever-present through parts of the Jewish tradition. The prophets and others continually spoke of its truth in new and changing contexts. They sought to remind people of God’s ways which were often counter to those present in the dominant cultures around them. Perhaps the single biggest difference between the Kingdom of God and the empires and nationalism around them was the systems of violence and domination employed in these empires (as we’ve discussed above). The Kingdom of God was and is non-violent! In the example and teaching of Jesus we recognise that he opposed evil, injustice and all that excluded and violated people. He stood against it with passion but he did not do it violently. Jesus did not oppose violence with more violence because he knew it wasn’t God’s way and it never provided a lasting solution. When we isolate the Christmas story(s) and the celebration of Christmas from the core and transformative message of Jesus, it loses its power, meaning and depth. Sometimes it helps us to set aside the things we know and think we know about Jesus and his message, to hear again what Jesus actually did and said. It is important to listen to the writers of those accounts of Jesus’ life and to hear them for what they say, rather than what we think, remember or imagine they say. It is only as we are willing to listen again, as if for the first time, to the stories of Jesus that we may find understanding of how his life and message have relevance and meaning in our modern world that changes so quickly. It is also important to put aside the absolute certainty about what we or I believe and therefore that those who differ are wrong. Such certainty ends up as religious fundamentalism and is really contrary to the faith and way that Jesus proclaimed. It is devoid of the humility, love and grace that defined Jesus and the way of God. It would also be good to approach the task of listening to God through Christmas with the questions that we may otherwise squash or reject. Questions and uncertainties are okay if they are honest and open and we are willing to listen, reflect and learn from one another and other perspectives. It is only as we are willing to ask questions, wonder and prayerfully follow our curiosity that we will learn and grow; that we will discover that ‘God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word’ as the old hymn suggests.
A Christmas Story: The Beginning of Santa…
One of the most prominent figures in the Christmas season is Santa Claus. Whilst not seen, except in the persona of his ‘helpers’ Santa is a beloved figure who brings great hope, joy and wonder to many children. Have you ever stopped to think, though, that Santa favours the wealthy over the poor? They clearly receive more significant and expensive gifts!
The whole notion of Santa Claus has a typically convoluted history but he is based on a true Saint of the Church – St Nicholas.
Nicholas was born of wealthy parents in AD 280 in a small town called Patara in Asia Minor. He lost his parents early by an epidemic but not before they had instilled in him the gift of faith. The little Nicholas went to Myra and lived there a life full of sacrifice and love. In the Spirit of Jesus Nicholas became so Christ-like that when the town needed a bishop he was elected. He was imprisoned for his faith by Emperor Diocletian and released later by Emperor Constantine. There have been many stories of his generosity and compassion: how he begged for food for the poor, and how he would give girls money so that they would have a dowry to get a husband. The story most often repeated was about how he would don a disguise and go out and give gifts to poor children. He gave away everything he had. And in the year 314, he died. His body was later moved to Italy where his remains are to this day.
But the story of Nicholas has spread around the world. There are more churches named after St Nicholas than any other person in all the history of the church. Oh, people have done strange things to him. The poet, Clement More, gave him a red nose and eight tiny reindeer. Thomas Nast, the illustrator, made him big and fat and gave him a red suit trimmed with fur. Others have given him names – Belsnickle, Kris Kringle, Santa Claus. But what’s important about him is that he had the mind of Christ. Because of his gentle selfless love, he touched the whole world. And this same mind of Christ is to be in us.
This week you are invited to ponder what it is you truly hope for? What are the deepest yearnings your heart?
The Jewish people longed for liberation under God – the Promised Messiah! What do you think our society, our nation, truly needs and/or wants?
How do you respond to the proclamation of God’s Reign/Kingdom? Are you inspired by the promises of God’s Kingdom on earth?
What might it means for you? For your church? For our community/nation?
What differences are there between God’s Kingdom and the powers of the world that oppose it?
Do you have particular questions about God, faith or Christmas that have floated around in your mind?
Perhaps you have not shared these with others. Perhaps you have not allowed yourself to reflect upon them.
What might you like to do about them this year? How/where might you find answers?
The story of St Nicholas is an inspiring and beautiful story.
How does it touch you and is there a way of you being inspired to live as Nicholas did? What might you do this Christmas?