The year was around 4 BCE, give or take. The place was Palestine, a tiny province conquered years earlier by the Roman Empire, which dominated the Mediterranean region in that era. The Jewish people technically had their own political apparatus in the person of Herod the Great, a puppet king beholden to Rome, who used his office not to serve his people, but to profit off of them with extractive taxes. Who used his position not to protect his people from Roman depredations and reprisals, but instead focused his energies on building up glorious architectural monuments to himself and his reign. The Jewish Encyclopedia calls Herod a man who “was prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”
That is the context for what we celebrate this night. It is a setting in which fear dominates, in which the poor had become poorer, in which the Jewish people had become enslaved to the world’s superpower, in which hopelessness had become infectious. This context must be clear if we are to grasp the radical, improbable, miraculous twist that comes next.
Imagine you’ve never heard this story before. What would you assume comes next? Any movie buff might guess: this is where an unlikely military hero emerges. He’d be a rebel underdog, but he’d be a conqueror, too, come to set his people free from Roman subjugation and Herod’s tyranny. We’d see video montages of his training regimen, and follow his slow rise to the top.
But we don’t get a military hero, fighting glorious battles against terrible odds. We don’t even get a fully-grown man. We get a teenage girl. An awkward pregnancy. A confused fiancé. A tiny baby, born on the road. We get angels in glory and a special star, but they lead to this—just an infant. An ordinary, fussing, demanding newborn.
It’s hard to think of anything more helpless than a human baby. A newborn lamb, at least, is able to stand and walk. A chick is able to find and peck at its own food. But a human baby is helpless, and it stays helpless for so much longer than other animals. So if we were watching this movie, and we found a baby instead of a military hero coming to the rescue, the thing I think we’d ask ourselves is, what is the screenwriter thinking here? What do they expect us to make of this?
Here’s what the Screenwriter is telling us: True power is not military force, not economic advantage; it is not building oneself up and trying to control everything. True power is humility. It is love—the love between a mother and her son, between God and God’s people. True power is the ability to embrace how little we can control anything.
We celebrate, this night, the birth of a baby, the light of a star, the wisdom to follow the light, the openness to be changed. There is a very old English Christmas song that has, as its refrain, various Latin words and phrases. One of them is transeamus, which means, “Let us be changed.” One of the things Christmas teaches us is that, to be people of faith, we must be open to change. Mary takes a leap of faith and welcomes a very inconvenient pregnancy, pagan wise men travel hundreds of miles to meet a new kind of king, a humble king. Shepherds overcome their terror of a heavenly visitor and learn to replace their fear with joy. Even God changes, embracing embodied life with all its limitations and vulnerabilities. It is only Herod who, trapped by his fear, enslaved to power, refuses to open his heart.
To be human is to change, and Christmas is above all a celebration of humanity, of the goodness of being a created being, what I like to call a “little human being.” The little human being is not a big, majestic, godlike entity, but a humble, limited, changeable creature. Having power and being in control seem obviously better than being limited and humble, but there are hidden benefits to humility. To be humble is to be adaptive, curious, open, always learning. It is to let ourselves off the hook of our ego, to recognize the truth that we are not in control. And it is to be open to happiness and joy. I have yet to meet someone with a gift for happiness who is not also grounded, humble, able to laugh at themselves. Whereas to be obsessed with power is to be, like Herod, constantly afraid, afraid of anything that threatens their status.
So these are the two poles of the nativity story: on the one hand, we have Herod, a ruler so insecure in his status that he fears a tiny infant. A man who has closed his heart completely, who has refused to accept that there are things he simply cannot control. He’s a human being, he’s just totally unaware of that fact. And on the other we have an infant, one who is Emmanuel, that is, God with us. One who shows the ultimate humility of accepting limitation, mortality, and complete solidarity with the human condition. One divides people and inspires fear; the other brings people together and inspires love.
So the question is, who do we want to be like? The fearful king, puppet ruler of the Romans, deluded into thinking he needs to control everything? Or one of the crowd who gathers around the baby Jesus, lost in wonder? Arrogance, or humility? Fear, or love? A person who lusts after power, or just a little human being?
This is the choice Christmas challenges us with. Will we close ourselves off from change, from growth, from community, or will we attempt to make peace with our powerlessness, open ourselves to change, deepen our capacity for joy? Will we strike out, like the Magi, for something new and foreign? Will we move beyond fear, as the shepherds do? Will we open ourselves to uncomfortable and inconvenient changes, as Mary does?
Where are we looking for Christ today? I hope it is not in the halls of power. I hope we are looking for signs of God’s solidarity with us in the oppressed and discriminated against: in the poor, the migrant, and the refugee, because Jesus is all of those things. I hope we are looking at the little human beings, the ones who bring blessing to others. May we each strive to be one of them, and may we find the true glory of Christmas in their presence. Let us be changed.