It’s Christmas again, and whatever the year has brought, it shudders to a halt for the last week. Which gives everyone a chance to catch up with family, time for reflection, and a much needed break from the busyness of our normal lives. In some ways, it seems a bit like the biblical nativity story of Mary and Joseph trekking it out to Bethlehem – hitching south-west to my hometown I met all kinds of people who are on the same journey, back to places and people they rarely see to celebrate Christmas together.
I think a lot about the biblical story of Christmas this time of year. Of course we are surrounded with the Christmas carol or nativity display version; but the story, like any story, is more nuanced.
This year I’ve been thinking about the Jewish people, who for 400 years had been living under the burden of oppressive empires – invaded and enslaved by the Babylonians, they were now subjects to the Roman empire and its appointed powers. We get a sample of what life might have been like being pushed around by a foreign power with the report (Luke 2:1-3) that the emperor Augustus could order a census and force everybody to travel to different provinces just so the empire could count its subjects.
But before the story even gets to that point we get some insight to the feeling of the Jewish people at this point in history. Mary’s song of praise (Luke 1:46-56) is a remarkable statement of oppressed people and what their hope for salvation looks like:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”
It’s hard for most of us today to understand exactly how the Jews would have felt. I find it interesting that for the history of the English speaking church (whose role in society is much closer to that of the Romans in the Christmas story than the Jews), the idea of salvation has been turned into a metaphor for freedom from our sins, without any mention of liberation of oppressed people from empires. Certainly it’s hard to find many Christmas carols that contain lyrics about bringing down kings from their thrones or sending the rich away empty-handed.
Remembering the social conditions puts a new perspective on the shepherds who leave their flocks to visit the baby Jesus as well. But while happy shepherds and singing angels are a part of the nativity story we know so well, the story has another interesting twist.
Joseph and Mary take their son to the temple for the Jewish ritual of dedication, where they meet a prophet named Simeon. Simeon has been waiting for the salvation of Israel, and God has told him he will not die until he sees the messiah (Luke 2:26). When the old prophet sees the baby Jesus, he firstly tells God that he is ready to die now, but he also gives a chilling warning to the parents:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword (some translations have “sorrow like a sword”) will pierce your own soul too.”
Sorrow like a sword piercing your heart is not something we often include in our nativity displays. But of course the next part of the Christmas story (recorded in Matthew 2 but not in Luke) is the horrific genocidal purge of Jewish children under two years old by the power-mad king Herod. Matthew (2:18) quotes the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote during the Jewish exile:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
We are told in Luke 2:19 that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”; and she must have thought a lot about Simeon’s words to her as she saw the adult Jesus persecuted, plotted against, and finally brutally murdered by the state. The Jewish people who believed Jesus would be their saviour must have had their doubts too. The temple where Simeon said “my eyes have seen your salvation” was destroyed for the final time by the Roman army in 70AD following a Jewish uprising.
But Jesus was never going to liberate the Jews in a single generation. Simeon knew the truth. The message of Jesus – that freedom comes from loving your enemies, service “to the least of these” and non-violently speaking the truth to those in power – is certainly a revolutionary one, but some revolutions take longer to turn than others. And while that message brings great hope and extraordinary transformation, even today it is still a guarantee of a lot of sorrow mixed with the joy.
I know that for a lot of people who believe in justice and peace, 2014 has been a very difficult year. We have in Australia a government whose priority is the rich getting richer, no matter who gets left behind. Their budget and their climate policy set back gains that had been hard fought over years.
For those who; like Jesus, Mary and Joseph; have fled persecution at home to seek refuge elsewhere, Australia was like the fire to welcome them out of the frying pan. With a promise that no asylum seeker will be settled in Australia, the government has left them to go crazy in top secret detention centres with no rights and no hope. The tragic deaths of Reza Berati and Hamid Kehazeai on Manus Island this year certainly left a lot of us in sorrow.
As if the violence of fundamentalist groups in the Middle East wasn’t bad enough, media hysteria here in Australia led to numerous attacks on and a permanent state of fear for Muslims here. Has that contributed to the likelihood of retributive violence? We’ll never know I guess. Definitely don’t expect our media to be asking the question calmly. The never-ending and destructive war in Iraq stumbles on decades after the US first dropped its bombs there. Of course both sides are fighting with American weapons, but it’s still civilians that are the ones dying.
And that’s just the start really. Government corruption, crazy new laws, persecution of those who tell the truth, police violence, plenty of other violence, the list goes on. The report into CIA torture methods was the stuff of nightmares and a reminder of what empire looks like today. And the year ended with a couple of terrible very public acts of violence. After one of them I said to a friend “I wish this year would just end already”.
Of course with a new year the only thing guaranteed to change is the calendar – it’s people that have the power to create a better world. But at Christmas we get to take a break, celebrate being with our families and loved ones, and try to draw on some of the hope in that Christmas story. The hope of Mary, of the shepherds, of Simeon. The hope that a different way is still possible, and that we can keep struggling despite the heartbreak. The hope that that little baby born in a manger really does have the ability to bring “peace on earth”.