If there is anything that most would want farthest removed from Christmas, it would be politics. Christmas is not time to wear one’s political stripes, and the divisive talk that goes with partisan allegiances does not make for polite much less congenial conversation at Christmas. Whatever liberals and agnostics, progressives or “free thinkers” might think, the fact that Christmas is a Christian celebration by origin and by nature. If other religions and cultures also celebrate it, all the better. Joy is not meant to be shared begrudgingly. And the Gospel accounts as well as the prophecies accompanying them are shot through and through by politics.
We are told of a census ordered by Augustus Caesar at the time that Quirinius was governor of Syria—and we are therefore reminded of the subjugated state of God’s People when his Son was born in their midst. It is this census that sends Mary and Joseph off to Joseph’s city —Bethlehem, allowing the evangelist to trace Jesus’ lineage, if only by way of his foster father to the Davidic dynasty, and the fulfillment of a political prophecy that the scepter would never depart from
Judah! Despite the power of Rome and the arrogance of its minions, God was bringing his promises to pass. “I bring to you news of exceedingly great joy: Today, in the City of David is born the Savior, who is Messiah and Lord”. This was political dynamite: City of David—so, after all despite that all that the Jews had been through, conquest, exile, servitude, and colonization, it was not the kingdoms of men that would prevail but the Kingdom that God himself had established, with David at its head. “Lord” was the way the Jews reverently referred to God, not daring to utter the name revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, but it also meant that only the Lord could claim their absolute allegiance, and only a king who ruled by the Lord’s will and mandate had the right to their fealty. And in those troubled days, “Messiah” was not always thought of in apocalyptic terms—the great champion of the Last Days who would bring God’s Kingdom on earth, but one who would lead a victorious uprising against the despised Romans.
The visit of the Magi upsets Herod, a vassal king. whose utter discomfiture at the mention of a “new-born King of the Jews” is exactly the measure of the tenuousness of his claim to kingship. It is the confrontation of wisdom—which the Magi represent—and raw power, or a pretense at it, that is pathetically portrayed by Herod’s erratic behavior. The Magi are guided by portents of earth and sky. Their view is cosmic. Herod can see no farther than his throne and is wary of the shadows that lurk behind, lest a usurper seize it from him. The violence of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents would be repeated several times in history by persons in Herod’s same mold: so fearful of any diminution in power, so full of dread about losing their grip on the throne. And sacred history writes the inevitable conclusion: Violence never prevails!
But it is the prophecy of Isaiah that is read at the Christmas Liturgy that is most potent, politically, for it sets forth God’s demands for any ruler: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding; a spirit of counsel and of strength; a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.” That, in the wisdom of the Prophet, is what makes a champion of a ruler: one who goes by wisdom and understanding, one who heeds wise counsel and draws strength from it, and one who bends in reverence at the Lord’s name and humbles himself in God’s sight.
By these standards, many of Israel and Judah’s leaders were failures—as were the conquerors who had annexed the land that God had promised his people as their provinces. But it remains the gold standard of all leadership, no matter that the workings of resentment may lead clear moral and political insolvents to denigrate and spite them. They, after all, remain the deepest and the noblest aspirations of all people for their government and their leaders.
Merry Christmas to all.