I always seem to get a little blasphemous at Christmas.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Christmas. The story, the traditions, the memories, the liturgies, are all wonderful ways we connect with our past, and remind us, at least in part, who we are.
At the same time, the relentless cheerfulness, the insane stress we put on ourselves, and the competing story that inundates us 24/7 which tries to tell us that we are what we buy or get or consume (which are admittedly there all the time, but which are exponentially ramped up at this time of year) all combine to make me just a bit cynical about it all.
Just a bit!
So, as I was reading through the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s gospel this year, I was struck by the first couple verses. They are frequently skipped over, or ignored, and sometimes they aren’t even read. But they did something for me this time.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor [aka Caesar] Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Luke 2:1-2
That’s it. Just those two simple time markers.
But what came to my mind when I read them this time was the (admittedly somewhat blasphemous!) statement, “Keep Caesar in Christmas!”
The second thing that that came to mind was the equally blasphemous “Keep Quirinius in Christmas!”
(I think the first has more impact, because Caesar was far more important to the story, and to history, than Quirinius, but I must say, the alliteration of the second is rather nicer!)
The story of the birth of Jesus is a major political statement, in which the big guys turn out to be less than pawns in God’s ultimate chess game. THEY are the ones who are captive; in this case, captive to their own understanding of what Power is, and what it is for.
Meanwhile, God is free, working in the shadows to bring light. God is free, working in the hidden corners to bring into the open; in the middle of powerlessness to demonstrate true strength; in the middle of vulnerability to bring assurance; in the middle of un-named masses to bring true identity.
We need to remember Caesar and Quirinius, for they not only locate the “Jesus event” in time, but also in political realities which affect how the story plays out, and which make this story Good News for those under oppression, for all who live under the thumb of Caesar or his myriad current-day offspring.
The freedom Christ brings is not just a “spiritual” freedom, which somehow applies in all situations (but which, in reality, impacts none of them). Freedom in Christ has real-world, political ramifications; not partisan, but most definitely public, most definitely part of life, most definitely engaged in the concrete struggle for justice.
The church in Europe during the 20’s and 30’s forgot that. Most Christians allowed themselves to be convinced that “religion” was “spiritual” (i.e. all about heaven) but in the mean time, they had more important things to do. And at the top of that list was obeying the government.
In many ways, we are still paying for that.
That’s why I think it might be helpful to have a new figurine added to our nativities, dressed in a toga and issuing orders which Joseph and Mary are legally obligated to follow. We need this reminder that Caesar was “In Charge,” doing “Important Things,” and building the glory that was Rome.
Perhaps then we will be more open to the God who comes in vulnerability, to un-important people, who are doing completely ordinary things, and who are therefore in a position to discover reasons to challenge the claims our current day Caesars might be making.
Keeping Caesar in our Christmas story is a way to make the story real, concrete, and relevant in a world which increasingly wants to dismiss any who challenge the status quo.
Challenge the status quo! Keep Caesar in Christmas!