A short word on Christmas eve
Joseph was a carpenter. Mary was a simple village girl in the Galilee. When Jesus was born, shepherds and wise men came to celebrate his birth. Christmas tells us that God cares for everyone – high or low, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim or Jew. God does not discriminate. God loves us all.
And Christmas tells us something else. There are lots of angels in our Christmas stories, but only in one place is there a whole choir of angels. When the shepherds are in the fields, watching over their flock by night, there is an explosion in the sky, and suddenly a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill.”
This is in Luke’s story of Christmas. And there Luke tells us that Jesus will be called the son of God – the son of the Most High – and the saviour of the world.
Luke knew what he was doing when he wrote his gospel. Or perhaps I should say that God knew what he was doing when Luke wrote his gospel.
For in the world into which Jesus was born, these titles – son of God, saviour of the world – were already taken. They were taken by the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus.
What Luke is telling us in his gospel is that these titles don’t really belong to Caesar. Really they belong to the little child lying in the manger in Bethlehem. And this is good news.
Why is it good news?
It is good news because the Roman emperors had a simple but false view of how the world worked. The world, for them, turned on four things: religion, war, victory, peace. Rome believed, as empires tend to do, that the future of civilization demanded peace through war, peace through victory.
But the good news preached by Jesus, and the good news preached about Jesus, proclaims a different programme: religion, non-violence, justice, peace. Its watchword is peace through justice.
All our religious traditions are ambiguous.
When the Christian crusaders from the West rode into Jerusalem in 1099, they killed Muslims and Jews indiscriminately. They also killed some local Christians because these, in their view, weren’t the right kind of Christian. If we were in Jerusalem in 1099 rather than 2014, I’m guessing many of us would be at risk.
This is not the vision the angels sang of peace and goodwill on earth.
But every Christmas calls us back to the vision of the angels: religion, non-violence, justice and peace.
And every Christmas tells us of a God who makes himself vulnerable by coming to us in the form of a newborn child – a God who opens his arms to us in the manger in Bethlehem and who will later open his arms to us on a Roman cross – a God who invites us also to be vulnerable, to take the risk of lowering our defences and opening our arms to each other.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace – if only we want it enough.
John Dominic Crossan, “The Challenge of Christmas“, The Huffington Post, December 12 2011.