All opinions expressed are those of the writer.
The Christmas season hearkens many thoughts and emotions, many of which are centered around the tale of Christ’s humble birth in the little town of Bethlehem. For centuries, Christians have celebrated the season of Advent, marking the coming of Christ. The word “advent” derives from the Latin word adventus, meaning “arrival.” This term was not a term to be taken lightly in the ancient world. It was reserved for describing the arrival of kings and emperors. What better term to describe the coming of God himself to mankind?
As long as Christianity has existed, Christ’s birth has been remembered as anything but a silent night in a stable at Bethlehem. Rather, it was the coming of a new kind of emperor who would establish a new kind of kingdom.
Jesus was given the name Christ, Christos in Greek, meaning “Anointed.” This was a direct translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah” and was reserved solely for the Righteous One who would be anointed and crowned as the new king of Israel and of all creation. This new king, descended of the line of David, would be born in Bethlehem, and his coming would usher in a new age for the whole human race.
This is why the gospel writers choose to use the word “gospel” to describe the coming of Jesus. Gospel means “good news,” translated from the Greek word, euangelion. This word was the same word used to celebrate the birthday of Caesar Augustus himself, who proclaimed himself a god and the bringer of peace to the world despite rampant greed, conflict, slavery, injustice, and persecution of every kind filling his empire. Likewise, the birth of Christ was a proclamation that a new emperor had arrived who had come to reclaim and establish a kingdom whose gospel was true peace. This kingdom was not an empire built by governments, oppression, or military might. Rather, it was established in love, humility, and self-sacrifice. All of these themes are at play in Luke’s gospel, beginning in the narrative of the Nativity and coming to their head in Jesus’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.
1In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed,[b] who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.[c]8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”13
Luke 2 is really a tale of two emperors. The first emperor, the emperor of great empire of Rome, wishes to count the subjects of his empire, acquired through campaigns of war and unjust oppression. The second emperor is born of the poor, oppressed, and forgotten, and in the unlikeliest of places. The news of his birth was carried to the meekest of people who existed on the fringes of society. However, this new emperor was nonetheless mighty. He was coming to save that which was lost and care for the broken-hearted.
It was only appropriate that this new king be named Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew), meaning “Yahweh saves.” As Luke describes, his birth was announced by legions of angels in a heavenly army. Translators derive “heavenly host” from stratias in Greek, meaning “army” or “troops.” How awesome and frightful a sight for a group of shepherds to see an army of angels proclaiming that the new ruler of the world was in their midst, coming to reign forever in truth, justice, and peace. This was the coming of heaven to reclaim a fallen earth.
Perhaps no Christmas carol captures the essence of Luke’s message as well as Isaac Watt’s 1719 classic, Joy to the World exclaiming that the world’s king has come. In fact, many Christian traditions in the western world choose to sing it as the last song of the Christmas Eve service.
“No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
“He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.”
What a contrast to the message announced by the emperor of Rome. By the year AD 81, the emperor Domitian, who ordered some of the heaviest persecutions of Christians, demanded to be called Dominus Deus, lord and god. These early Christians lived in a reality where they could be burned at the stake or fed to wild beasts for worshipping or pledging allegiance to any other lord or king. This was the way of earthly empires who perceived a threat to their rule.
Christians would pray that God would rule “on earth as it is in heaven.” As Jesus did, so his true followers would expand his kingdom not by the sword, but by caring for the poor, rescuing the enslaved, feeding the hungry, tending to the forgotten sick, and providing for the widow and orphan. They sought to sow peace in the midst of war and unity in the face of division. They laid down their resources, their freedom, and even their very lives at times as an act of spiritual warfare directed at no person, but the powers of sin and death themselves. Sacrificial love was and still is the true weapon of Christianity, although it has been forgotten many times by the church throughout her history.
Despite this, the Christmas season has consistently allowed the church to reorient herself and remember the true meaning of Christ’s birth and the powerful message of his kingdom: that the Creator came down to the very depths of broken humanity to rescue his children from death and give them the gift of life. The church was to do so likewise for the world, beginning in their very homes and communities.
This annual commemoration was soon built into the rhythm of the seasons of the early church and was celebrated often in huddled groups and hushed secrecy but radiant hope. The threat of persecution was often real, but so was the joy and faith that permeated the church’s gathering that would one day become the Feast of Advent. At this feast, the Christians reminded themselves of who the true king was, what his kingdom represented, and their roles in it despite the trials and sufferings and hopelessness that permeated the world around them. The Christmas season offers to us today the opportunity to enter the mindset of those early Christians who prayed for the coming of recreation. May Christ give us hope, in this year especially, as we pray for God’s kingdom to continue to be established in us and through us.