God Does Not Need To Show Off - Fr. Leonard Klein
This beloved story includes some of the sharpest parody ever written.
Let me explain.
Jesus was born, as Luke makes clear, in the reign of Caesar Augustus, a time of peace in the Mediterranean world. Augustus’ victories a generation earlier had ended a series of brutal Roman civil wars. Not long before Jesus’ birth an altar of the peace of Augustus was erected in Rome. Reconstructed, it is still there. “About the same time” writes the late Fr. Raymond Brown in The Birth of the Messiah, “the Greek cities of Asia Minor (perhaps not far from where Luke was writing) adopted September 23rd, the birthday of Augustus as the first day of the new year, calling him a ‘savior’ . . . . an inscription at Halicarnassus calls him ‘savior of the whole world.’”
Elsewhere in honor of Augustus there is an inscription which reads “The birthday of the god has marked the beginning of good news for the whole world.” But the herald angel is having none of it, none of this talk of imperial birthdays being the good news of the coming of a Savior. The story of Jesus’ birth mocks the claims of Augustus. Luke wants us to know that Jesus is what Caesar claims to be. The herald angel proclaims the real good news – authentic peace and an authentic Savior, coming to the world not in Rome, not in the center of power, but in Bethlehem, in the humblest of circumstances.
God does not need to show off.
But is the pungent irony of the Christmas story really necessary? Is it that important to knock Caesar of his pedestal? The Augustan age was in many ways a good thing; it made life better for many of the peoples within the bounds of the Empire – and this was a good thing for the early Church. St. Paul could travel in relative safety from Jerusalem to Rome. You wouldn’t try it today. A few decades earlier Pompey the Great had eliminated piracy in the Mediterranean, an accomplishment modern navies cannot achieve in the Indian Ocean off Somalia. Roman law was harsh but it was stable and comprehensible. There was widespread prosperity.
Still, the empire rested on force, fear and violence. It grew by warfare and intimidation. Slavery was intrinsic to the economic and political system. There was no concept of human rights except for those who bore the title of Roman citizen, and dignity belonged to the dignified. Fathers had absolute rights over the life and death of their households.
It was a better state than many, but the peace of Augustus was the partial peace that human power can establish. Augustus must presume to divinity to buttress his claim. In fact his rise to power was anything but divine. It was bloody, treacherous and cruel.
So it is in varying degrees with all human authority. The good order of the quietest New England town meeting rests on the capacity of the state to restrain at the very least the violent and the dangerous. And the full police power of the state stands behind our tax bills.
Force and violence are necessary ingredients of civilization, whether we care to admit it or not. In our fallen, sinful state, it’s the best we can do. Sometimes it works well as in our nation mostly; sometimes order is maintained by brutality; sometimes it collapses completely. Thus for God to redeem us, to bring his peace and deliverance to the world, it is necessary to invert the normal order of things. That’s what Isaiah envisages in tonight’s reading from the Old Testament:
For every boot that tramped in battle,every cloak rolled in blood,will be burned as fuel for flames.
When the zeal of the Lord of hosts accomplishes his purposes, true power will be seen in weakness, victory in vulnerability; glory will be manifest in humility. The Kingdom of God will be quite different from Caesar’s excellent empire.
And that is why the angel’s message is good news. The real Savior, the Messiah and Lord, comes quietly, humbly. The witnesses are Mary and Joseph, a few shepherds, and the beloved animals of the crèche. Even the poverty of the Holy Family is unexceptional. The birth takes place in very difficult circumstances, to be sure, but that crisis was not their permanent situation. Joseph is a small businessman; their life back in Nazareth after the Flight to Egypt is stable.
Jesus is not born the poorest of the poor but into an ordinary Galilean Jewish family. God does not need to show off.
And yet here in the midst of the humble and the ordinary God is bringing about the deliverance of the human race.
The humility and the ordinariness of the whole thing are critical to our belief that Jesus is Lord and Savior. He meets us where we are, for our lives do not look like the glory of Rome, but more like a couple trying to raise a child. He meets us where we are, and that, I think, is why we so much love the simple hymns and the sometimes gaudy decorations of the season.
They encounter us, and we receive them, in a simplicity of heart that can restore us to a proper relationship to God. He comes to touch us where we live.
And if the world’s Savior is the one born in Bethlehem in these simple circumstances, then all the great crimes committed by all the great Caesars throughout history are exposed not just for their cruelty but also for their emptiness and vanity. Washington, Wall Street, and Hollywood would like us to think that it all depends on them. So would Harvard and Johns Hopkins, the UN, the EU, CNN and Fox, and the New York Times. Science and technology will deliver us, many imagine. And on Friday the Klan rallied in Elkton to save America. The Klan always gets it wrong, but the others get it wrong a lot; there are no saviors among them. If any were declared Messiah and Lord, we would be wise to run for the bunkers.
Time Magazine named Pope Francis the Person of the Year. From what I have seen of the article this was partly because of what the editors misunderstand about him but not entirely. What Pope Francis is about – and what Time and its peers partially perceive – is to show the world Jesus freshly, to turn its eyes, our eyes, from the usual preoccupations to wood of the manger and the wood of the cross.
Though he has not like Blessed John Paul experienced both Nazism and Communism, he has in Argentina lived through dictatorships of the right and the left and has seen the economic and social wreckage that the false Messiahs have left behind. He has seen close up the hunger and pain of the poor and the spiritual decay of the powerful and the privileged that have resulted.
His call to the Church to spread the Gospel anew comes from an acute realization of the price humanity pays every time it cries out Hail, Caesar and looks for its hope and its future in the wrong place.
The pope is simply repeating the message of the angel:
Do not be afraid;for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Lying in a manger . . . there you have it. The good news for all people is embodied not in Caesar’s palace but in a baby swaddled and laid in a feed trough. There is hope for humanity, but we need to look in the right place.
A medieval carol puts it this way:
This little babe so few days oldHas come to rifle Satan’s fold.All hell doth at his presence quake,Though he himself for cold do shake.
Hell need not fear Caesar; he too often does its bidding. But it fears this baby, this Son of the promises of God to his people, this Word of God made flesh, this vulnerable child. And the God who would thus come to us can be trusted. Caesar will fall, riches will disappear, power will evaporate, success will disappoint, life will end, but God will not abandon his people. After all, he has become one of us and has done so in lowliness.
That is where we find him on this Holy Night, humble, swaddled and in the manger, for God does not need to show off.