The Challenge of Christmas

The story of Jesus's infancy was created differently by Matthew and Luke as parabolic overtures to their quite different gospels. But there is one aspect of Jesus's infancy upon which they both agree, namely, the frequent arrival of angels, heavenly messengers who give to mundane events a transcendental purpose. Think of angels as ultimate meanings radiantly personified.

In Matthew, an angel explains Mary's pregnancy to Joseph (1:18-24), warns him to flee Herod's murderous designs (2:13-18), and tells him when it is safe to return home (2:19-23). Matthew's angels work through dreams to insure the fulfillment of prophecy.

In Luke, angels have a somewhat divergent function in establishing the parallel lives of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. First, an angel -- identified as Gabriel -- tells Zachary that, although he and Elizabeth are aged and infertile, their soon-to-be-born son John "will be great in the sight of the Lord ... even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit ... to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (1:5-25).

Next, that same Gabriel tells Mary, that although she is an unwed virgin, her soon-to-be-born son Jesus will "will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David" (1:26-38).

Finally, when Jesus is born in Bethlehem -- ancestral city of David, the once and future king of Israel -- an angel tells shepherds that, "I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord" (2:11-12).

Angels direct, as it were the narrative traffic of both those infancy stories but there is one very special case of angelic intervention found only in Luke. This involves not just a single angel but the entire heavenly choir who descend to earth and chant in the reversed parallelism of typical biblical poetry: "Glory to God / in the highest heaven / and on earth peace /among those of [God's] favor" (2:14). But, since this is poetic parallelism, divine glory in heaven is human peace on earth. Not either, but both, or neither.

A lovely couplet of hymnic hope, to be sure, but where is the challenge of that first Christmas vision? To find it watch the titles already given to Jesus and to Caesar. Jesus was proclaimed as "Son of God," "Savior of the World," and "Messiah/Christ" (1:32; 2:11). In between those titles appears the name of "Caesar Augustus" (2:1). But, before Jesus the Christ was ever conceived, Caesar the Augustus had been already proclaimed by Roman imperial theology as "Son of God," "Savior of the World" and "Imperator/Autocrator." Also, the vaunted Pax Romana was already incarnated and embodied in Caesar himself by the consecration of a magnificent Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar -- not just of Roman -- but of Augustan Peace at Rome.

Granted Luke's Roman matrix for this Jewish child, what precisely was the difference between those identical titles and identical proclamations of "Peace on Earth"? If the Roman Augustus had already established peace on earth, what was left for the Jewish Jesus to accomplish? How was the presence of Roman imperial peace different from that promise of Jewish messianic peace -- on this one and only earth?

The difference was not in the that of peace but in its how, not in the purpose and intention of peace but in the mode and method of its accomplishment. For Rome, as you can see clearly on the beautiful bas-reliefs of that above-mentioned Altar of Augustan Peace, the mode and method was: religion, war, victory, peace. Rome believed, as did every empire from the Assyrian to the American, that the future of civilization demanded peace through victory. But the messianic vision of the Jewish Jesus proclaimed a different program: religion, non-violence, justice, peace. Its mantra was peace through justice. Or, as Jesus told Pilate in John's powerful parable: God's Kingdom, as distinct from Rome's Kingdom, precludes violence -- not even to liberate himself from imperial power (18:36).

Victory's violence establishes not peace but lull -- until the next and always more violent round of war. The Christian challenge of Christmas is this: justice is what happens when all receive a fair share of God's world and only such distributive justice can establish peace on earth. But how can we ever agree on what is fair for all? Hint: ask what is fair -- in first or 21st century--of the 99 percent of earth's people and not of the 1 percent.