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A Tale of Two Empires: What Christmas is about

A Tale of Two Empires: What Christmas is about

Glynn Cardy 25th December 2021

The story of the birth of Jesus is deeply embedded in western culture.  The story takes images from the gospels of Luke and Matthew and compiles a narrative of God coming to humankind to create peace and justice.  

There are some details about Jesus’ early life about which we can be reasonably certain: he came from a small village called Nazareth, worked as a day labourer, and initially was a disciple of John the Baptist.  But of his birth, we know nothing.

So where, we may ask, did the stories come from?  The answer is that they came from communities of Jesus followers who were so caught up in what he had said and done, that they exalted his birth and created narratives of cosmic origin and intervention.

The details are familiar.  An angel was said to appear to the virgin Mary, informing her that she had been chosen to bring into human flesh the one who would save the world.  Joseph was told the pregnancy was not suspect, but that the child in Mary’s womb was a manifestation of God’s power.  When Jesus was born, angels appeared to shepherds in the field.  Magi (Zoroastrians) from the east followed a star brilliant beyond all others that led to the manger. 

We all know this blended story.  A story created to underline Jesus’ status as absolutely special.

They are fabrication with a purpose, not intended to be taken literally, but definitely to be taken seriously.  Fiction with a purpose; but what is the purpose? 

In order to understand why the stories were written, we need to understand the context in which they were written.  The world was ruled by what I call the empire of grasp.  This empire, created and sustained by an elite, ran a system that normalized a pyramidic structure of wealth, privilege, and inequality.  Most of the populace in this structure were poor, enslaved, or destitute, and kept in their place by violence.  At the top of the pyramid was the god, Augustus Caesar, who was wreathed in titles like peace of peace, saviour, and lord.

The Jesus followers had an alternate message.  They created in the first two centuries after his birth small communities where people called each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, and looked after each other, and often shared what they had.  It was an empire of gift.  They called Jesus ‘the Anointed’ (the Greek word for Messiah) and attributed to him the accolades reserved for the god Caesar – prince of peace, saviour, and lord.

In other words, they wreathed a man who had been crucified by the Roman Empire with the same titles as the man/god who ruled over that Empire.  This is what those naughty angels sang to the shepherds.

These Jesus communities told and retold stories about him, and in the telling repudiated the myths and ideology that undergirded Caesar’s empire.  In the alternate empire of Jesus, outsiders were welcomed inside, and the insiders didn’t know where the boundaries between inside and outside were anymore.  In the alternate empire of Jesus, the sick were not shunned, women participated in roles that men had dominated, and children came first.  All the cultural presumptions around what was normative were tossed upside down.  It was giving not grasping that mattered.

In the alternate empire of Jesus, it was not the threat and use of violence that maintained order but the belief that love was the way, means, the desired end of all that they did.  Love grounded in a vision of an alternate empire.

The birth narratives encapsulate in miniature this upside-down message of an empire of gift.  In the birth narratives a poor girl is chosen.  The baby is illegitimate.  The birth happens in a barn among animals.  Angels appear to shepherds (in those days shepherds were reprobate youth).  In another birth narrative, exotic astrologers bring presents to this barn-born kid extolling him as the king/emperor.

The Jesus movements arose in the context of two empires with two ‘emperors.’  One, Caesar, ruled over the empire of grasp, with legions of enforcers.  The other, Jesus, was tortured and killed as a rebel by some of those enforcers.  And that was meant to be the end of Jesus.  Instead, the seeds he’d planted of an alternate giving empire began to sprout in the very garden of the empire that had disposed of him.

The Christmas story can be literalized into a nonsense.  God ‘coming down’, as if God was not here already.  God taking root in human flesh, as if God is not in all flesh.  God-in-Jesus voluntarily dying, as if the Romans looked for volunteers to crucify.  Jesus dying and ‘rising’, as if ‘rising’ was not a well-known code for ‘living on in the hearts and allegiance of others.’  Jesus as triumphant ‘king’, as if Jesus bore any resemblance to any king, in any way, ever. 

The Christmas story is a big mythological story that says if you go looking for God, don’t head to a palace in Rome, or a palace in Jerusalem, or a palace anywhere where the rich, famous, and powerful lay out their largesse.  You won’t find him where there is grasping and grabbing for power.

Instead head to the back of beyond, among those rejected, in places of squalor, where you don’t have to have a passport of privilege, among the little and seemingly insignificant.  And there, were you see people giving, treating each other as gifts, you will find a seemingly insignificant god, a weak god compared with Caesar. 

This god who goes by the name of arohanui – love.  This god is not like a king with status and clout, but this god is more like a river flowing.  The proverb ‘Aroha mai, aroha atu’ (love flows towards us, love flows out from us) picks us this sense that love is something we experience flowing towards us from others, but also something we join and give out, gift out, to others.

This is why the followers of the arohanui god believe that loving is more important than winning (which is nonsense in Caesar’s world); believe that setting people free is more important than trying to control their lives (which is seditious in Caesar’s world); and believe doing what is right is more important than doing what is safe (which was likely to get you killed in Caesar’s world).  The values, beliefs, and actions involved in following this arohanui god are at odds, a reversal even, of what the caesars and their followers of every age have and do value, believe, and act upon.

So, following Jesus, following the real star of Bethlehem, each of us being Christmas, has always been counter-cultural, hard to believe, terribly political, and terribly simple.  It’s about sharing – so every baby, in every barn, in every backwater, has enough – and no would-be caesar has too much.  It’s about sharing the resources of the earth in such a way as to tend and care for all life.  It’s about sharing the love, joining the flow of love, to give hope to every place and person feeling hopeless.  It’s about letting go of the grasp in order to give.

A Tale of Two Empires: What Christmas is about

Glynn Cardy 25th December 2021

The story of the birth of Jesus is deeply embedded in western culture.  The story takes images from the gospels of Luke and Matthew and compiles a narrative of God coming to humankind to create peace and justice.  

There are some details about Jesus’ early life about which we can be reasonably certain: he came from a small village called Nazareth, worked as a day labourer, and initially was a disciple of John the Baptist.  But of his birth, we know nothing.

So where, we may ask, did the stories come from?  The answer is that they came from communities of Jesus followers who were so caught up in what he had said and done, that they exalted his birth and created narratives of cosmic origin and intervention.

The details are familiar.  An angel was said to appear to the virgin Mary, informing her that she had been chosen to bring into human flesh the one who would save the world.  Joseph was told the pregnancy was not suspect, but that the child in Mary’s womb was a manifestation of God’s power.  When Jesus was born, angels appeared to shepherds in the field.  Magi (Zoroastrians) from the east followed a star brilliant beyond all others that led to the manger. 

We all know this blended story.  A story created to underline Jesus’ status as absolutely special.

They are fabrication with a purpose, not intended to be taken literally, but definitely to be taken seriously.  Fiction with a purpose; but what is the purpose? 

In order to understand why the stories were written, we need to understand the context in which they were written.  The world was ruled by what I call the empire of grasp.  This empire, created and sustained by an elite, ran a system that normalized a pyramidic structure of wealth, privilege, and inequality.  Most of the populace in this structure were poor, enslaved, or destitute, and kept in their place by violence.  At the top of the pyramid was the god, Augustus Caesar, who was wreathed in titles like peace of peace, saviour, and lord.

The Jesus followers had an alternate message.  They created in the first two centuries after his birth small communities where people called each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, and looked after each other, and often shared what they had.  It was an empire of gift.  They called Jesus ‘the Anointed’ (the Greek word for Messiah) and attributed to him the accolades reserved for the god Caesar – prince of peace, saviour, and lord.

In other words, they wreathed a man who had been crucified by the Roman Empire with the same titles as the man/god who ruled over that Empire.  This is what those naughty angels sang to the shepherds.

These Jesus communities told and retold stories about him, and in the telling repudiated the myths and ideology that undergirded Caesar’s empire.  In the alternate empire of Jesus, outsiders were welcomed inside, and the insiders didn’t know where the boundaries between inside and outside were anymore.  In the alternate empire of Jesus, the sick were not shunned, women participated in roles that men had dominated, and children came first.  All the cultural presumptions around what was normative were tossed upside down.  It was giving not grasping that mattered.

In the alternate empire of Jesus, it was not the threat and use of violence that maintained order but the belief that love was the way, means, the desired end of all that they did.  Love grounded in a vision of an alternate empire.

The birth narratives encapsulate in miniature this upside-down message of an empire of gift.  In the birth narratives a poor girl is chosen.  The baby is illegitimate.  The birth happens in a barn among animals.  Angels appear to shepherds (in those days shepherds were reprobate youth).  In another birth narrative, exotic astrologers bring presents to this barn-born kid extolling him as the king/emperor.

The Jesus movements arose in the context of two empires with two ‘emperors.’  One, Caesar, ruled over the empire of grasp, with legions of enforcers.  The other, Jesus, was tortured and killed as a rebel by some of those enforcers.  And that was meant to be the end of Jesus.  Instead, the seeds he’d planted of an alternate giving empire began to sprout in the very garden of the empire that had disposed of him.

The Christmas story can be literalized into a nonsense.  God ‘coming down’, as if God was not here already.  God taking root in human flesh, as if God is not in all flesh.  God-in-Jesus voluntarily dying, as if the Romans looked for volunteers to crucify.  Jesus dying and ‘rising’, as if ‘rising’ was not a well-known code for ‘living on in the hearts and allegiance of others.’  Jesus as triumphant ‘king’, as if Jesus bore any resemblance to any king, in any way, ever. 

The Christmas story is a big mythological story that says if you go looking for God, don’t head to a palace in Rome, or a palace in Jerusalem, or a palace anywhere where the rich, famous, and powerful lay out their largesse.  You won’t find him where there is grasping and grabbing for power.

Instead head to the back of beyond, among those rejected, in places of squalor, where you don’t have to have a passport of privilege, among the little and seemingly insignificant.  And there, were you see people giving, treating each other as gifts, you will find a seemingly insignificant god, a weak god compared with Caesar. 

This god who goes by the name of arohanui – love.  This god is not like a king with status and clout, but this god is more like a river flowing.  The proverb ‘Aroha mai, aroha atu’ (love flows towards us, love flows out from us) picks us this sense that love is something we experience flowing towards us from others, but also something we join and give out, gift out, to others.

This is why the followers of the arohanui god believe that loving is more important than winning (which is nonsense in Caesar’s world); believe that setting people free is more important than trying to control their lives (which is seditious in Caesar’s world); and believe doing what is right is more important than doing what is safe (which was likely to get you killed in Caesar’s world).  The values, beliefs, and actions involved in following this arohanui god are at odds, a reversal even, of what the caesars and their followers of every age have and do value, believe, and act upon.

So, following Jesus, following the real star of Bethlehem, each of us being Christmas, has always been counter-cultural, hard to believe, terribly political, and terribly simple.  It’s about sharing – so every baby, in every barn, in every backwater, has enough – and no would-be caesar has too much.  It’s about sharing the resources of the earth in such a way as to tend and care for all life.  It’s about sharing the love, joining the flow of love, to give hope to every place and person feeling hopeless.  It’s about letting go of the grasp in order to give.