Luke’s Subversive Story of Jesus’ Birth

By Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles

Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus probably conjures sentimental feelings for most people. It might even call to mind the soulful recitation given by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Now, I have nothing against sentimentality, but if that’s all we get out of the story of the birth of Jesus, we are pretty much missing the point. Luke’s deceptively simple tale is subversive. It’s a provocation.

The narrative begins as a heroic poem would have at the time, by mentioning great and powerful leaders, in this case the Roman emperor Augustus and Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria:

“Now it happened that at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be made of the whole inhabited world. This census — the first — took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

If common folk appeared in tales and histories from this period, they would have functioned as foils or comic relief. But having invoked the high and mighty, Luke pulls the rug out from under us: It becomes clear that his story isn’t about Augustus and Quirinius at all, but rather about a young couple of no notoriety making their way from one dusty outpost of Caesar’s empire to another. In fact, it is Augustus who will function as a sort of foil to the true king, the helpless child born of Mary.

Luke tells us that the baby king was born in a Bethlehem stable or a cave — a place where animals are kept — because there was no room in a simple traveler’s hostel. Unlike Augustus in his palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome, the authentic emperor arrives unprotected, vulnerable.

We hear that the newborn is wrapped in “swaddling clothes.” That’s a straightforward description but also, I like to think, a metaphor. The high and mighty — like Augustus — were free to do as they pleased; to impose their will on others. Luke is telling us that the true emperor is marked not by self-assertive freedom but rather by a willingness to be constrained by the demands of love.

The baby king is then placed in a manger, where animals come to feed. Here again there’s an implied contrast with Augustus, who could snap his fingers and get any material good he wanted, and who presided over marvelous feasts. Luke suggests that the true king is not preoccupied with his own pleasure but rather intent upon becoming nourishment for others.

The story comes to its dramatic climax with the angel’s message to the shepherds. We particularly should not be sentimental when it comes to angels. In the Scriptures, the typical response to seeing an angel is fear; who wouldn’t be afraid in the presence of a powerful entity from a higher world? The heavenly messenger clarifies the kingly nature of the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, identifying him as “Messiah” (one anointed in the manner of King David) and “Lord.” At that point, a “great throng of the hosts of heaven” — more angels — appear and sing the praises of God. The word in Luke’s Greek, which we translate as “host” or “multitude,” is stratias, which means “army.” Our words “strategy” and “strategic” are derived from it. Who had the largest army in the ancient world? It was, of course, Augustus in Rome, which is why he was able to dominate the entire Mediterranean. Luke insinuates not so subtly that the baby king, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, has in fact the more powerful army.

Luke’s Christmas story provides the interpretive key for reading the entire Gospel narrative. The life and ministry of Jesus unfold as a tale of rival kings and rival visions of the good life. From the beginning of his public work, Jesus is opposed, often violently, and that opposition culminates in his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman governor, who with delicious irony places on the cross a sign indicating that Jesus is king: “This is the King of the Jews.” The baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and the criminal dying on a cross are both meant as a taunt, a challenge, a turning upside down of our expectations.

I wish everyone well this Christmas and hope that you have a wonderful time with your friends and families. I also dare to say, “Have yourselves a subversive little Christmas.”

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