Most Christmas story books are for kids. They either tell a story that has almost nothing to do with the first Christmas – think, A Christmas Carol, for example, or Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer – or they whitewash the first Christmas and give it a G-Rating. It’s not that there is anything wrong with that – I appreciate having a kid-friendly introduction to Christmas to read to our young grandchildren. But if that is all grown-ups know about Christmas, they’ve missed the point of the story.
In kid’s Christmas books and conventional artistic representations, the first Christmas features fluffy white sheep, clean, fat cows, and humble-looking shepherds, all sanitized. We can’t smell the cows or the sheep (or the shepherds, for that matter), but you can be sure that Joseph and Mary could.
Popular depictions of that night routinely feature a sweet-faced angel hovering in the sky above, proclaiming good news of great joy to the shepherds. And, indeed, that is what the angel proclaimed, but the shepherds had a very different take on his message than we do. We hear the angelic message as the good news that a lovely baby has been born or that good triumphs over evil or, perhaps, that our souls will be saved. These ideas are true, but they would not have occurred to the astonished shepherds.
They heard the angel’s message the way a French Resistance fighter would have heard the news of D-Day: the battle had been joined, and liberation was at hand. Had you tried to talk to them in the language of contemporary children’s Christmas books, about the animals and the stable and the sweet, quiet baby, they would have been confused, chagrined even. They would have asked, “What are you talking about?” For the most part, we don’t see what they saw.
It’s not because the battle motif is hidden in the Christmas story; it is not. For anyone with eyes to see it, it is unmistakable. We just don’t have eyes to see it. We have been taught to think that the Christmas story is either all about a baby, and his birth in the most trying of circumstances, or all about us, and getting our souls into heaven.
Where is the evidence of this battle motif? Start with the annunciation, in which the angel tells Mary that her son will take the throne – held at the time by a usurper in the employ of a foreign power – and reign as king. In the first century Roman province of Judea, talk like that could get a person killed. And when the usurper heard that talk, people were killed. He sent troops to assassinate the child-king and devastate the village where he lived. The same kind of tactic has been employed by tyrants in our own day.
Also in the Christmas narrative, the priest Zechariah applauds the arrival of the one who will bring “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us…” Zechariah was expecting a war of liberation.
When the Evangelist Luke tells the story of Jesus’s birth, he sets it up by describing a census and tax initiative undertaken by Israel’s hated Roman oppressors. He writes of Caesar’s decree, and references the Syrian procurator who ruled Judea on behalf of the occupational government.
Luke doesn’t mention the angel’s sweet face. He rather writes about the terrified onlookers. As the angel announces the birth of the long-awaited Messiah King, he is flanked by “a great company of the heavenly host.” The word translated “host” is simply the Greek word for “army.” The shepherds would have assumed that the angelic army was an invasion force, and that military operations had begun.
Of course, they were mistaken. The angelic army, arrayed in glory, was not the invasion force. The little baby, wrapped in swaddling, was. Still, the war had begun, but it was not a conventional war. What was being contested was not land but people’s hearts. What was at stake was not the future of Palestine, but the future of the human race. And the secret weapon was love, “wrapped in swaddling and lying in a manger.”
Christmas is not only a reminder that God loves us, it is a reminder that we are at war: a war that will be won by love; a war in which we must take sides.