A strange kind of manger power
The Christmas story in Luke’s gospel begins by naming the head of the major super power of the day, the Roman empire’s Caesar Augustus. He issues a decree that “all the world should be taxed” and the writer notes that this census was first taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And in Matthew’s gospel King Herod, puppet governor of Roman-occupied Judea, is named as well.
These were ruthless, powerful men under whose occupation rebellions were met with brutal force. Subjects who dared to defy them were crucified, beaten or beheaded as a way of keeping the population intimidated and under submission.
And like many monarchs of his time, Emperor Caesar Augustus claimed to be a divine son of God, and a God himself, with titles like “Lord,” “God from God,” “Liberator”and “Savior of the World.” So the early gospel writers were placing their lives in jeopardy by claiming divine birth for a child born of a peasant girl in an occupied country, one whose revolutionary and worldwide new kingdom, to be ruled justly by Yahweh alone, was to prevail over the entire earth — just as it was in heaven.
Citizens of such a government, whose treasonous pledge of allegiance is “Jesus is Lord” rather than the required “Caesar is Lord” are frequently martyred for their heresy. And Herod commanded that all male children in the area around Bethlehem be killed out of his fear of a coming rival.
All of which makes Christmas more than just about festivity and merrymaking, but a bold announcement about who, and what power, is really sovereign, a declaration that still divides the world in two.
Two thousand years later no one knows or cares much about the Roman empire’s Caesar Augustus or his contemporaries King Herod of Judea or Governor Quirinius of Syria. It is the babe in the manger who still commands the greater allegiance.
Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.
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