When I was growing up, the Christmas story never seemed that radical.
Especially when we turned it into a Christmas play for kids. Junior Joseph wore an old dressing gown and Miniature Mary carried a plastic doll to represent cute little harmless baby Jesus.
The adults clapped politely and everyone felt sorry for the poor sucker who ended up as the donkey. Eee-or! Good times!
But little did we know, we were playing with dynamite.
And that dynamite is explosively revealed in the Christmas Carol of Justice sung by a heavily pregnant Mary in Luke 1:46-56 (known as the Magnificat). It’s the rebel yell of a new Kingdom that will UPTURN everything we take for granted.
In the last few decades, this Freedom Song for the Poor has only occasionally been recognized by the church for what it really is - a direct challenge on Empire - a letter of warning that the clock is ticking on our status quo. Yet, it has been banned all over the world by oppressive dictatorships. Here are a few examples:
During the British rule in India, the singing of the Magnificat in church was prohibited because of its incendiary lyrics. So, on the final day of British rule in India, Gandhi, who was not a Christian, requested that this song be read in all places where the British flag was being lowered.
During the 1980s, the government of Guatemala found the ideas raised by Mary’s proclamation of God’s special concern for the poor to be so dangerous and revolutionary that the government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words.
The junta in Argentina banned Mary's song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza.
The government of El Salvador banned this song in the 1980’s. And so on and so on – all over the world, oppressive defenders of Empire have found these words too explosive for everyday use. (I’m just waiting for certain “Christian” leaders in the United States to realize what this dangerous song says and attempt a ban on this "socialist" propaganda tune.)
To understand Mary's song and its implications fully, it’s crucial to see that Jesus was born in the midst of the Roman Empire. His Kingdom was a direct threat to that Empire, just as His Kingdom is a direct threat to the Empire we live in today.
Remember that Joseph and Mary were on the road, travelling to Bethlehem because the leader of the Roman Empire, Caesar, had demanded a census:
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.”
— Luke 2:1-3
Now this census was quite an undertaking. The Roman Empire sprawled over more than 6 million square kilometres - a massive area to march in those crazy leather and metal skirts the Roman soldiers wore. There would need to be a good reason to undertake such a pricey and difficult logistical task.
As it turns out, there are two main reasons historically, why empires would conduct such a census. Firstly, to determine how many able-bodied men might be available to be drafted into the military. More men in leather skirts!
And secondly to determine how many taxpayers there were in each location, to build up the wealth of the empire and fill the coffers of the men at the top.
In other words, to consolidate MILITARY and ECONOMIC might – the twin pillars (or the Twin Towers!) of any Empire.
Interestingly, have you noticed who John the Baptist singled out for special instructions on repentance in Luke 3? Tax collectors and soldiers – the two groups who represented the economic and military might of the Empire.
So, now we come to Mary’s Freedom Song. In this Christmas Carol of Justice, Mary describes the kind of Upside-Down Kingdom movement that Jesus will spark on earth.
And it is the direct opposite of an Empire built on power and might:
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”
— Luke 1:52
In the first-century Roman world, the word gospel or glad tidings, "euaggelizō," was used to describe the announcement that a new emperor had taken the throne.
Poncy Roman “heralds” would be “sent” throughout the Empire to dramatically announce the “good news” of a new Big Kahuna in the seat of power.
Along comes feisty little Mary. And she starts singing about bringing rulers down from their thrones.
And then a whole bunch of angels appear to the shepherds, subversively borrowing the language of the Empire to bring glad tidings, "euaggelizō," about a baby born homeless in a stable.
The Roman emperor was called “Savior” and “Lord” and was regarded as the one who would establish “peace” in the Empire. And yet here we have a bunch of angels saying that a new Savior and Lord has indeed been born (Luke 2:11) and HE will bring peace on earth - but it's NOT the emperor (Luke 2:14).
So, the birth of Jesus sets off a butterfly effect. The powerful who command armies and use violence to maintain their positions, will be brought down low in this new Kingdom. While the lowly, the weak and the vulnerable, will be lifted up.
Ultimately, Jesus shows just how different his Kingdom is when instead of arriving in town on a war horse toting weapons and advocating violence towards those who oppose him, he rides in on a humble donkey to show us the way to lay down our lives.
The Empire stockpiles more and more weapons and wages warfare with shock and awe and power and might. The Kingdom of Jesus pursues peace and justice and radical, sacrificial love for our enemies.
In this context, it makes perfect sense that the King of such a Kingdom would be born in such a vulnerable place. And the next line of Mary's song describes more consequences of this radical Kingdom:
“He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”
— Luke 1:53
In this new Kingdom, the affluent and comfortable (you and I) will no longer be allowed to dominate, while the poor and hungry will be brought to the center. Their needs will be met.
In the Empire, tax cuts, privileges, power and acclaim are for the affluent. Survival of the fittest. Claw your way to the top.
In the Kingdom, the most vulnerable in our midst will NEVER go hungry. Lift up those who struggle, and care for the least.
Jesus went on to live this out every day of His life on earth, thus showing us the way to see His Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
There is a war on Christmas but it's not what you might think.
The real war on Christmas in 2017 is waged by those who want to embrace the twin towers of the Empire – economic and military might – and call it Christianity.
The real war on Christmas is waged by those who say we should drop more bombs on our enemies and pour trillions of dollars into Military Might in the name of security. (Ever heard of Pax Romana?)
The real war on Christmas is waged by those who place the economic concerns of corporations and wealthy individuals above the needs of the poor and oppressed.
The real war on Christmas is waged by those who claim the name of Jesus, while embracing the values of the Empire.
But, this Christmas I'm not buying what they're selling. I'm not swallowing the ways of the Empire - for they make me choke.
Instead, I'm following Jesus - the radically subversive One heralded in Mary's explosive song of justice.
How about you?