A Political Act

Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

By Gavin Dunbar

Christmas, in our world, is a child-centered family festival — so it’s rather striking, and perhaps dismaying, to see how much political language there is in St. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus: not just Caesar’s decree that brings Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, but also the angel’s proclamation of the birth in David’s city of the Messiah, Savior and Lord, titles with deep political resonance. Even the shepherds are an ancient metaphor for government, both human and divine.

Moreover, in Paul’s epistle to Titus there is also political language (though we may not recognize it as such), interwoven with religious and ethical vocabulary, for it uses language that recalls the action that made Israel a nation with its own freedom, identity, laws, and heritage. And Isaiah has no doubts about the political role of the child that is born unto us:

Of the increase of his government and peace
there shall be no end,
upon the throne of David,
and upon his kingdom,
to order it, and to establish it
with judgment and with justice
from henceforth
even for ever.

So while we focus on children and families at Christmas, the Scriptures treat the birth of Jesus as a political act, indeed the supreme political act, the coming of the kingdom of God on earth, which accomplishes what all earthly kingdoms aspire or claim to do — and all that in our hearts we need and long for. It forms a community, conferring identity and security to those who belong to it, and providing us with a moral basis for shared action; and it does so in a way that transcends all earthly kingdoms, consoles us for their failures, and encourages us in the labor of building communities that in some way exhibit its likeness.

St. Luke begins his story with politics in the usual sense, the claims of worldly kingdoms exemplified in the decree of Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. That is political power we recognize: the power to command peoples and claim their resources for the purposes of state.[1] Caesar’s power seems absolute. Yet what really does his decree accomplish? It amounts to this — that it brings Joseph and Mary to the city of David, just in time for David’s heir, the Messiah, to be born where the prophets foretold.

The reality of Caesar’s power is to be the unwitting instrument of God’s providence and purpose, in establishing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Thus the boasts and pretentions of worldly power are confronted — and dismissed. It’s no coincidence that the titles of Savior, Lord, and Son of God, which Roman propaganda assigned to Caesar,[2] the messenger of God’s kingdom assigns instead to the Messiah newly born in David’s city, the great heir of David’s throne.[3]

Still we may well ask — what kind of power is there in a newborn child, wrapped in swaddling bands and laid in a manger? It does not look like power at all! And when that same child, now grown to a man, was wrapped in linen cloth and laid in a tomb — that does not look like power either![4] It also looks like weakness. Yet look what he accomplished in his weakness — he gave himself for us, says St. Paul to Titus, first in being born, and second in suffering a sinner’s death upon the cross: he gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people — a people, that is, uniquely his own possession.[5]

That language is political language too — for redemption is the word used of God’s liberating the Israelites from slavery, and adopting them as his own people. But this is a different kind of redemption that he works in Jesus — a redemption not from an external oppressor, but from our own iniquity, our lawlessness, our sin. An offense against the infinite majesty of God’s law requires atonement of infinite value — and here we may remember the core meaning of the word redemption — which is to regain possession of something that was lost by the payment of a price. Nothing we could offer would be enough to redeem us from our iniquity, but in giving himself for us, Jesus Christ made a payment of infinite value, for he is not only man born of Mary, but also as St. Paul says, the Great God and Savior.

No wonder, then, that in this self-giving of the great God and Savior Jesus Christ, St. Paul says the grace of God has appeared, God’s unmerited good will toward men, the invisible saving love of God made visible in the child of Mary. Grace may not look like political power as we usually understand it, but it accomplishes what no other political action does: it fashions multitudes redeemed out of many kindreds and tongues into one people, the holy catholic church[6]; and it provides us with a moral basis for our life together.

For in giving himself to redeem us from all iniquity, Christ also purified to himself a peculiar people, a people uniquely his own, zealous of good works — the Bible’s language for the action of God in bringing Israel of Egyptian bondage to show forth his praise by living in obedience to his laws. The appearing of his grace trains us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world[7] — and it does so on an entirely different basis from that provided by the kingdoms of this world. For Roman propaganda honored Caesar as the man who obtained glory as a god, as the reward of his benefactions to the Roman people. It’s the religion of the man who wins glory as a god by his own works — and it motivates men by pride, and the lust for vain glory — and ultimately to iniquity.

But the gospel honors not the man who won glory as a god, but the God who in his gracious good will toward men forsook his glory and was made man, to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption. So it motivates us to good works not by pride but by humble gratitude for his unmerited gift of grace, as we seek not our own glory but God’s.

Here tonight in this sacrifice of thanksgiving may we acknowledge the gift that has formed us as a new kind of community, his Body, and may we offer ourselves to him in his service, as a people uniquely his own, zealous of good works. With the angels may we give glory to God in the highest, who established peace on earth, by the Virgin’s son, the gift of God’s unmerited good will toward men. May we acknowledge him our Lord, who has made us his people.

The Rev. Gavin Dunbar is rector of St. John’s, Savannah, Georgia.

[1] It’s been suggested, and I think persuasively, that when St. Luke says the decree of Caesar Augustus was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria, what he is referring to is the first experience that the Jews had of direct unmediated and undisguised Roman rule — when they were first treated as Roman subjects, a step toward breaking down Jewish identity.

[2] — whose birthday was celebrated as the beginning of “good tidings” for all men.

[3] Something similar is happening in Paul’s letter to Titus — for the vocabulary of grace, epiphany, salvation, glory is language deployed by Roman propaganda in reference to Caesar, but which Paul applies to Jesus Christ.

[4] By a wonderful symmetry, the same power by which Jesus was conceived and born of a Virgin, to be wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the narrow confines of a manger — is also at work when the same Virgin’s son being wrapped in a shroud and laid in the narrow confines of a tomb then rises triumphant over death. And this power of the Holy Spirit by which the world was made and remade, in the conception and resurrection of Christ, the power that made perfect in weakness — this is the power that is at work in us who believe in him and in the gospel as unmerited grace, good will toward men.

[5] Cf. the ancient Collect for the Mass of Midday: “Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God: that we, who through our ancient bondage are held beneath the yoke of sin; may by the new birth of thine only begotten Son in the flesh obtain deliverance.”

[6] The nation that results is not defined by ethnicity, culture, geography, the accidents of birth — but by faith in the gospel and baptism into Christ, in whom, as St. Paul says, the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.

[7] looking for the blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ — it teaches us to live.


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