CHAPTER 1: AN ENEMY OCCUPATION
Before we get to Mary and Joseph, the Christmas story starts with a brutal enemy occupation. Look back at how the Christmas account in Luke 2 begins, and pay attention to the words you’ve heard in every Christmas pageant but perhaps never really thought about.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
There’s a lot more going on in those few sentences than a simple date and time stamp, to mark Jesus’ arrival in history. This is the unveiling of the setting of the story, the world into which God’s Son enters. And it’s not a pretty picture.
Jewish independence was permanently shattered when the Roman empire invaded and conquered the region in 63 BC, a generation before the Christmas story. By the time Jesus was born, only the surviving old people could remember what it had felt like to be free. In the years since the invasion, Rome had set up a puppet government that laid oppressive taxes on the land, confiscated lands and property for the empire, and ruled with ironfisted impunity. Roman garrisons were stationed in the holy city of Jerusalem, and on more than one occasion, Rome even desecrated the temple itself, fueling a growing and violent Jewish opposition. And amidst it all, God was silent. The prophets had ceased; there was no word from the Lord.
As years and decades passed and the memories of independence faded, longings for freedom didn’t fade; in fact, they intensified. Messianic pretenders arose and gathered followers who hoped to overthrow the occupiers and reestablish God’s chosen nation. They were all slaughtered by the Romans. The common people, laboring under confiscatory taxation, corruption, and violence, longed for the promised day when God would restore David’s fallen kingdom. “How long, O Lord?” was the cry from hearts across the oppressed Promised Land.
This foreign occupation was so entrenched that a distant emperor could command a census for the purpose of additional taxation, and every person in backwater Judea obeyed. Of course, they had to comply; the purpose of the Roman garrisons throughout the region was to ensure a steady supply of gold to the imperial coffers. A disruptive census, in which every family had to return to their ancestral home, was probably accomplished at sword point, with no small amount of violence. People were driven from their homes and ordered to report to the authorities, under threat of imprisonment or death.
So this is the setting into which God’s Son was born: brutal foreign oppression and violence. The holy family arrived in Bethlehem not because they wanted to but because they were forced from their home by invaders. Jesus was born, not to a people who were free, but to those ruled by a pagan emperor and his armies.
Why dwell on this point, here at the beginning of the Christmas story? Because it’s important for us to see and feel the context of the Christmas story, if we are to see and feel its message. Christmas is not wishy-washy, warm-and-cuddly. Christmas is not nostalgia and good feelings and peace and joy. Christmas is an invasion, the rightful King landing in enemy-occupied territory. Christmas is an act of war.
This matters a great deal. All too often, the soft glow of our sentimental Christmases can seem out of touch with the way the world really is. We talk about Christmas being a time of peace and love and joy, but it can often feel far from that. No matter how hard we try to conjure up “happy holidays,” family conflict, tragedy, depression, financial difficulties, and more conspire to ruin the season for many. Our songs and greetings can seem cliché—and often are—because they don’t meet us where we’re really at. What’s the use of singing “peace on earth” when peace seems so out of reach?
But that’s exactly the point. The angels singing, “Peace on earth” were not out of touch with reality, although it might have seemed that way to the shepherds. What they were announcing was not a season of nostalgia-induced happiness; they were announcing the beginning of heaven’s long-awaited war campaign against all the enemies of peace. They were speaking the arrival of peace into violence, oppression, and chaos. The Prince of Peace had arrived and the war had begun, the war that will eventually end with the overthrow of every enemy of peace.
But on that dark night, the arrival of heaven’s champion didn’t look like the imminent reign of peace and joy. After all, what good could a baby do against all the political and cosmic powers arrayed against God’s people? All that the shepherds had was a promise: this baby in the manger was peace on earth incarnate and he had come to begin making everything right again. All they could do was wait, and believe. Just like us.