Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Christmas Myth As Subversive Good News

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world." That familiar line from the gospel of Luke the evangelist begins a story about the uncommon birth of a child who would one day be called "savior" by much of the world.

The story is so familiar we overlook much of what it says. One thing from the beginning is that the Emperor, the most powerful person in the known universe at the time, a person who was considered to be a divine son (he was the adopted son of a leader who had been divinized), a person who had the exclusive right to be called "Lord" and who was honored as a peace-bringer...this "Caesar Augustus" issued a decree that led the so-called Holy Family to the place where Jesus was reportedly born.

Of course, Jesus would later be called "Lord" and "Prince of Peace" and "son of God" - the very titles that identified and honored Caesar (the Emperor or king of all kings). This gospel was written 10-15 years after a conflict which left Jerusalem devastated and the Jewish Temple in ruins (and some 50 years after the death of Jesus). In these circumstances people used the art of literature to fight back, seditiously applying the imperial titles to one the empire had executed! Jesus became the rural hero who was miraculously born and who wouldn't stay dead. It was a story of hope that proclaimed without apology that God had a preferential option for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. And the religion that grew out of that movement outlived the Empire and thrives even today.

If the Christmas story is about a virgin defying the laws of nature only to bring a demi-god into the world that must be worshipped in order to avoid eternal damnation, then I couldn't be more bored with it. I find no Good News in such a story and I find no reason to share it with others. If, by contrast, the story is a creative attempt to empower the powerless and to affirm that God dwells among the least and the lowly and cares for those society has forgotten, then the parable becomes Good News indeed and more than Good News, spiritual Truth! And that is a gospel I can try to live and that I can endeavor to share. That is a gospel that may offer some experience of salvation (that is, life-giving hope and liberation) afterall.

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