Just the other day, I was reflecting on an influential saint of modern times, whose voluminous songbook has had considerable influence across the globe. His Christian name is Vincent Damon Furnier, but extant evidence demonstrates that he preferred the more ecclesiastical title of Alice Cooper. He is best known for his thesis on Judas, “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” and his reflection on human sexuality eloquently named “I Like Girls.” Recent scholarship, however, has of late sent out a call for further exploration of his lesser known, though equally eloquent works, such as his original contribution to our understanding of the Fall, “Hallowed Be My Name,” and his paradigm shifting invective against Gnosticism entitled, “The World Needs Guts.”
Now, of course, I am being hyperbolic in my respect for Alice Cooper’s work, and I am not serious in my appellation of him as a saint. But there is one thing that he understands pretty well, and that is the nature of the Kingdom of God. Later in his life he is credited with speaking these words, “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s rebellion.”
The narrative of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke teaches us this same reality: for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, it is nothing less than a call to arms.
And yet for so many of us it has become merely a call to eggnog. Dorothy Sayers understood this well. She wrote, “[W]e have efficiently trimmed the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended Him as a fitting pet for pale curates and pious old ladies” (“The Greatest Story Ever Staged,” in The Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays by Dorothy Sayers, p. 14).
You don’t have to identify as a Christian to know that we have domesticated Jesus, that we have wrapped him up in expensive paper and put a bow on his head. But the story in Luke is one of radical subversiveness — it is the story of God taking on flesh behind enemy lines to rescue creation from certain death and decay. C.S. Lewis spoke of this reality in Mere Christianity:
Enemy-occupied territory — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage (Mere Christianity, pp. 45–46).
And this is exactly what is going on in the Lukan birth narrative, if you read it carefully. One crucial step in reading Scripture is to understand what genre you are engaging. You read the Psalms as poetry and epistles as letters, not vise versa. But the Gospels are narrative, and narrative does not merely tell us what is happening, it shows us. Throughout Luke, there are little rhetorical flags planted in the text alerting us to how Jesus’ invasive Kingdom is moving in under the radar.
At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s Magnificat proclaims the following about Jesus:
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and has exalted the humble and meek.
Indeed, Simeon will go onto say to Mary that, “this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” This is revolution and a call to arms! But what are the arms of this king?
We know the arms of the Emperor of Rome, both from history and from the witness of Luke:
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.
If you know your history, then you will know that Augustus rose to power through murder and violence. He was a ruthless ruler, befriending those people whose friendships were politically expedient, only to turn around and kill them when they became a threat. Now he is here identified by Luke doing what kings do: taking a census. Why would Luke go out of his way to mention this tyrannical king? Taking a census allows Augustus to exercise power and to stay on top of his game. It will allow him to levy taxes, to issue drafts drawing young men into war and violence, to control and, more importantly, use the people. But Luke wants to show how this new king, Jesus, is different.
This is a king who lives in solidarity with the poor, the weak, and the world — this is not a king who insists on a palace or robes of golden thread, he is one who is refused from the inn and is delivered in a dirty manger (2:7). Luke is saying something here: this is a God who chose to enter into the messiness and the grittiness of life in order to encourage and “exalt the humble and meek,” as the Magnificat claims. He chose to be a weak baby who could not even lift his head, who was vulnerable and had to rely on the community around him. This is a king who is placed in a feeding trough — he does not demand the best food possible, but will himself become food and drink for those who follow him. “Those who eat of my flesh and drink of my blood, I will dwell in them and they in me,” says this king (John 6). But first he himself must suck the breast, cut his teeth, and learn to walk.
Moreover, this is a king whose royal entourage is made up of a group of ragtag shepherds who sing of joy. This is a king whose army brings peace, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among all men” (vv. 12–14). Here is no raping and pillaging of towns, burning of crops and destruction of cities.
You see, the Empire that lasts is not the one that takes up the arms of Herod or of Augustus, it is the one that takes up the arms of Jesus. These precious arms that now stretch for the mother Mary will one day stretch out and heal the lame. These little arms that are now smooth and tiny will one day embrace the marginalized and the poor. These same arms formed by Joseph to use the nails and wood of a carpenter will likewise be stretched out on the hard wood of the cross, showing that a true king is not one who kills those who pose a threat, but is killed for them, rather, in order to release them from bondage of their own eternal insecurity. These arms stretch out even now, for you.
The ironic conclusion is that our sweet little manger scene is actually a call to arms, a call to the gentle arms of a newborn. And we are called to embrace this newborn and to be embraced by him; to learn to walk with him, not only in the joys of life, but all the way to the cross for others. We take up the arms of Christ when we embrace the other—the crazy uncle, the stranger, the sibling we cannot stand, or the estranged friend, the coworker, the boss, the enemy. Choose which king you will follow this Christmas season and take up your arms, take up the arms of Christ.
The featured image is “Army Bugler MOD” (2013) from Wikimedia Commons.