The Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke is familiar to many: Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to the little town of Bethlehem, where they find there is no room in the inn. The baby Jesus is born in a manger in a stable with the ox and donkey looking on. Shepherds, watching their flocks in fields by night, hear angels proclaim a song of peace on earth and hurry to worship the child.
It’s a popular and beautiful story. Yet the way we tell the story at Christmas often misses the political impact it must have had when Luke’s Gospel was written.
Luke is thought to have written his Gospel around the years AD 80-85, probably during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian. Domitian was encouraging a revival of the Roman propaganda and slogans used during the reign of Caesar Augustus, who had ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth.
Some inscriptions from that time still survive today. Augustus proclaimed that his reign would be a time of salvation for all people, and would herald the coming of an age of peace from which everyone would reap immeasurable blessings. An inscription in the Roman city of Priene, in what is now Turkey, proclaims that the emperor’s appearance (epiphany) exceeded the hope of all former good news (gospels) surpassing all benefactors who came before him.
Caesar Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who had been proclaimed a god by the Roman Senate. Inscriptions on coins called Augustus “Son of the God Caesar.” Inscriptions on imperial temples called him “Savior,” and said the Pax Romana brought by Augustus delivered the good news (gospel) of peace on earth.
Luke was familiar with the imperial propaganda of Augustus, and knew that Domitian was renewing those old slogans. Luke makes it clear that the birth of Jesus took place when “a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1).
But Luke was not writing about a mighty emperor or a powerful military leader. Luke was insisting that a poor child, born in a feeding trough for cattle, far from imperial Rome, was the real Prince of Peace. And that child had been born in a land, Israel, where the people had been defeated and even oppressed by the Romans.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that peace does not come through force of arms, nor from the wealthy who rule, but from the weak and despised.
The “Magnificat,” the hymn of Mary, makes the point clearly. Mary says God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).
Roman emperors brought peace by protecting the wealth and power of the ruling classes, and often made the rich richer and the poor poorer. But the message of Christmas tells us that true peace comes, not from the rich and mighty, but from a humble babe in a manger. And he was one who, according to Matthew 2:16-17, began his life as a refugee when his parents protected him by seeking political asylum in a foreign land.
Christmas is not the story of those who build walls to keep strangers and refugees out. It is not a story of those who promote nationalism, greed, or self-importance. Rather, Christmas is the story of a penniless and humble rabbi who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, healed the sick, helped the blind to see, gave comfort to the poor, condemned violence, rejected material wealth, and welcomed everyone to his banquet table.
Rev. J. Mark Worth is minister emeritus of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ellsworth. He lives in Penobscot.