When you think of the Nativity, what do you picture? Perhaps a smiling Mary, silent Joseph, the uncrying baby Jesus. Well-lit stable with animals in it, maybe. You may imagine Silent Night and Away in a Manger.
It’s an image that’s taken on mythic status — a cosy Christmas fable. This Christmas story is an ode to family, warmth and gifts.
The problem is that the real story of the Nativity doesn’t much resemble this. In fact, this year, I was struck by how different the biblical and historical accounts of the Nativity are — and how much the Nativity on my mantelpiece shrouds the real grit of the story.
Consider this: There’s a 13-year-old Jewish girl named Mary, pregnant out of wedlock. Her doubtful fiance, Joseph, had to endure the humiliation of suspected infidelity – then make the tough decision to stay by Mary’s side.
After that drama, they set off on a gruelling 90-mile journey to Bethlehem. This is in a world where 20 miles was considered far, and Mary was heavily pregnant. To add insult to injury, they had no choice but to give birth in what amounted to a cave for animals.
Not exactly your ideal scenario. What we call the Christmas story today is true in part – but it’s also missing huge swathes of detail. And it’s in that detail that the story gets subversive.
The historical Nativity
At the time of the Nativity, Augustus Caesar was emperor and had consolidated all kinds of power to himself. His reign was mixed: though he brought peace, he used crucifixion to terrorise his subjects.
His people hailed the emperor as a hero after the clutches of civil war. Caesar was a “Saviour”, the “beginning of all things”. Tales of his exploits were called the “euangelion”, or good news. Similar to how a US president is called the leader of the free world, the Emperor’s divinity was considered “obvious and non-controversial”.
Imagine, then, the chutzpah of Matthew and Luke in writing about a rival Saviour. It’s surely no accident that Matthew and Luke used the titles and attributions usually given to the great Caesar. Saying Jesus was God meant that Caesar wasn’t God. Saying Jesus was the Saviour meant that Caesar wasn’t Saviour – and so on.
What’s worse – Jesus wasn’t even royal. He was essentially a nobody. Born to Jewish parents out of wedlock, his family were from a small, nowhere town, and Jesus hadn’t even a bed when he was born.
The people who attended Jesus’ birth weren’t dignitaries. In fact, they were working joes or outsiders. The shepherds were men considered unclean and “second-shift schmucks who worked outdoors”. The “kings” are more accurately called Magi, and were most likely pagan astrologers. In other words – not the “right” religion, and not from the “right” country, either.
David Hayward’s cartoon illustrates this wonderfully. Jesus’ birth wasn’t about pomp and circumstance – it was a new world order. The humility of his birth was itself a powerful statement.
Merry complicated Christmas
Today, our culture tends to accept Christmas as a time of gifts, loved ones and nostalgia. The subversive origin of the holiday has been shrouded in tinsel and good cheer.
While Jesus’ birth is a happy occasion in many ways, it’s also got hard edges. Born into squalor, Jesus was born with the down-and-outs and the undesirables. He was both nobody and a potent threat. He was to take on the ruling authorities, not through military domination, but through being a servant of all.
I have no beef with Christmas fables or Santa’s sleigh. But when we reduce the Christmas story to a nice fable about family, we miss the richness that speaks of inverting privilege and standing for the powerless.
The truth of Christmas isn’t so much in the glitter as in the grit.