The Subversive, Revolutionary Story of Christmas
Everybody loves Christmas.
During this time of the year, we stream Love Actually on Netflix, play Leona Lewis’ One More Sleep on repeat, look at the peaceful nativity scene and go, “Aww, that’s nice!”
Many people see Christmas as a chance to take a break, feel sentimental for a couple of weeks, and then get back on the same hamster wheel of life.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, if we reduce Christmas to just sentimental feelings, we also lose a tremendous opportunity to transform ourselves for the new year.
As a recap, we’re in a midst of a series where we try to extract some practical advice from the Bible. Even if you’re not Christian, the Bible – as one of the oldest collections of wisdom – can offer you some concrete, practical wisdom to live in the world today.
In today’s post, I want to offer a slightly different perspective of the nice, sentimental Christmas that we’re all used to. When we bring it back to its Biblical origins, we’ll discover that it has a revolutionary, even subversive message – one that can inspire us towards greatness if we unpack its true meaning.
Let’s Set The Stage
Picture the scene during the time of the mighty Roman Empire, 2000 years ago. Rome has conquered much of the world, including a small strip of land in the Middle East called Judea. Caesar Augustus is the emperor of the known world. As the 2nd chapter of Luke’s Gospel describes:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.
Side note: Notice how Luke’s Gospel has a very different genre from the Book of Genesis, which we talked about in my previous post. Genesis is written in a symbolic, poetic style, which is not meant to be interpreted literally. In contrast, Luke’s Gospel names actual figures and places – giving us a clue that this is a historical account. See what I mean when we say that the Bible is more like a library of different genres, rather than just a single book?
Okay, now back to the story!
Living in Judea under the Roman Empire was kinda like living in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation – there was lots of tension in the air, and plenty of unhappiness over the foreign rulers. The Romans brought in taxation, oppression, and a completely different culture from the Jewish way of life.
For example, Luke describes a worldwide census decreed by Caesar Augustus. Why did Augustus want a census? Likely so that he could tax people more effectively, draft them into the military, and allocate resources to squash out any political resistance more efficiently.
Overall, the mood in Judea was definitely not a nice, Christmassy atmosphere with soft lighting and children singing “Silent Night”. Quite the opposite.
The Baby Who Threatened The Roman Empire
Then in the tiny town of Bethlehem – under the jurisdiction of the Roman Herod the Great – a baby boy was born.
But this was no ordinary baby: His name was Jesus, and hundreds of years before his birth, the Hebrew scriptures had already foretold his birth in Bethlehem. They predicted that God would raise him as a future king who would liberate the Jews from their oppressors (See Micah 5:2, Isaiah 7:14, Jeremiah 23:5).
If this was just folklore or legend, nobody would’ve paid much attention. But Herod was so unsettled by this supposed new threat that he ordered the massacre of all male children aged two and under in Bethlehem. (Matt 2:16) Jesus’ parents escaped with their child, but it’s interesting to see how a Roman ruler with 2,000 bodyguards was basically terrified of a little baby boy.
We don’t normally think of Jesus this way. We like to see him as the cute little baby in the nativity scene, who didn’t bother anyone. But from the moment of his birth, Jesus challenged the authorities on what it meant to be a true King1:
- Unlike Caesar Augustus who lived in a protected, walled palace, Jesus was born vulnerable and unprotected against the elements because his parents couldn’t find an inn to give birth in
- Unlike Caesar Augustus who had the freedom to do whatever he wanted, the infant Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and was literally “bound up” in love
- Unlike Caesar Augustus who lived for his own pleasure, Jesus was born in a manger (a place where animals were fed), prefiguring his self-sacrifice as food for others in the Eucharist
We know, of course, that Jesus never meant to be a political threat. He was a greater kind of King, who inspired billions of people around the world to call him “Lord” and place his authority over that of any earthly president, king or ruler.
Three Practical Lessons We Can Learn From Christmas
What does this have to do with us, living in Singapore in the 21st century?
First, remember that there is strength in weakness. Jesus was never rich and never held positions in politics or the military. Yet, his teachings on love, vulnerability and self-sacrifice – often seen as “weak” by the world – would help him to exert more influence than any other human ruler in history. Weakness can often be turned into strength, and vice-versa2:
- If you’re young, single and broke, you can work for more hours at lower pay to get more experience. Those earning more aren’t usually willing to incur that opportunity cost
- If you’re not the smartest person in the room, you can pick up new skills with a beginner’s mind. Those with more experience often can’t see past their own biases and mindsets
- If you aren’t as popular as your friends, you can strive to form meaningful, tighter relationships within your inner circle. Those with a wider network simply don’t have the time to invest as much in each relationship
Second, love has more leverage than money or power. Think of the people in your life whom you admire and respect the most – the ones you would do anything for. Chances are, they’re awe-inspiring not only because of their accomplishments, but because they’re also loving towards those around them.
But being loving doesn’t necessarily mean being “nice” or “soft”. The late Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa were famously tenacious and tough when they needed to be, yet they did everything with love. They also arguably exerted a lot more influence than most presidents and world leaders.
Third, you have to make a choice on which king to follow. Everyone serves a master – the only difference is which one you choose. Do you serve Caesar, who epitomises worldly success and security? Or do you serve Jesus, the embodiment of love and self-sacrifice? (for authentic love often comes with plenty of sacrifice and suffering)
When it comes down to it, which king would you serve? And how does that choice show up in your daily life?
I hope you can see that the Christmas story isn’t just some nice, sentimental fairy tale. No – it’s subversive, revolutionary, and definitely isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions.
- 1Robert Barron: Bishop Barron on Christmas – this post was inspired by this video
- 2Scott H. Young: The Power of Weakness