Christmas puts Christians in a position where we have to prove our loyalty. That’s not a position anyone has ever liked. Catholics in the United States have basically spent centuries trying to get out of it. We are more American than the next guy. We uphold the neutral standards more strictly than anyone. We’ll let you know in advance that we’d certainly never follow a bishop or pope over the U.S. Supreme Court. Entire universities have been devoted to this project. Yet to the extent that we have succeeded, it has harmed us.
Our loyalty to secular authorities must always be conditional, or better, derivative. “The king’s good servant, but God’s first,” does, after all, imply that we are prepared to choose God over the king, if they conflict, and lose our head for it. The king wants us to be his good servant, period.
Christianity does not demand from us disloyalty, but an act of more fundamental loyalty, which is political too, because ultimately all authority is one. Maybe you have never sat through to the end of Handel’s Messiah, but its great concluding Amen goes, “Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.”
Indeed, the last words on earth of the Teacher who said “render unto Caesar” were: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” If you accept this, then all bets are off, except the bet on God’s really being the God of providence and good order.
But can truths like this reach through to us, between verses of “It’s a marshmallow world in the winter” and “Baby it’s cold outside”? Christmas as frivolity; Christmas as seduction by a Duraflame fire (“Tonight’s the night!”). Or maybe we do not even have seduction any longer, just arousal and sating. So: Christmas as desperate frivolity solely.
God will use the world to force our minds toward more serious things. We apparently are not in a position yet where Herod’s henchmen are the necessary remedy. Headlines seem enough: “The British Government refuses to state whether proclaiming the divinity of Christ is a hate crime.” “New York City bans the Catholic bishops’ message of goodwill on city buses.” And so on. They certainly get the point that proclaiming someone else as king is serious business. Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum.
And yet Herod’s henchmen were sent to us, forty-five years ago in Roe. And it boggles the mind that we go through another Christmas season and do not feel the utter and complete contradiction between abortion on demand and “Merry Christmas!” Yes, the contradiction is too horrible to contemplate, and that should be at least one reason why we are not contemplating it. But is it? Does our implicit awareness of the contradiction translate later into any action – such as a bus ride to the Mall in January, after frantic trips to the malls before Christmas?
The Incarnation is one thing, the birth of the Christ is something else. He is incarnated as God. He is born a king. St. Matthew is well aware of this, in his telling of the Gospel. He describes the Incarnation at the end of Chapter 1, since he needs to explain how, although X begat Y who begat Z, etc., Joseph did not beget Jesus, who was “conceived of the Holy Spirit.” But the birth of the Christ child is described in the next chapter, and there it is a clash of kings.
The Magi arrive from the East. They go directly to Herod’s court. Later there was “Herod the tetrarch.” This earlier Herod, in contrast, was a king. Thus Matthew deliberately and explicitly refers to him repeatedly as “the king, Herod” and “Herod the king.” So the magi go to the court of the reigning king and ask him where the king has been born! The Church Fathers in their commentaries are amazed by this. What chutzpah to ask the king where the King (true king? rightful king? higher king?) has been born!
The Fathers say: it appears a traitorous act. We might say, the Magi of their own accord place themselves in a position where they must henceforth “prove their loyalty.” No wonder tradition represents them as kings themselves, since Herod’s deference to them looks otherwise unaccountable.
No one is particularly “merry” in Matthew 2. The King Herod and the people along with him are disturbed and thrown into a tumult. Amazingly the learned men stay cool and dispassionate (or were they frightened out of their wits?), discerning correctly where the “King of the Jews” may be expected to be born. Herod is furious when he discovers he has been hoodwinked. Joseph must flee hurriedly with the Holy Family from this hostile kingdom until the competing king is dead.
We like to throw ourselves into the Christmas story, so long as it gives us the warm fuzzies and allows us to sing “It’s a time for play, it’s a whipped cream day,” or if we aspire to higher things, “Silent Night.” Certainly, no one can speak badly about a creche, invented as it was by the holy St. Francis. It is good no doubt to kneel by the manger with shepherd boys and sing lullabies to the baby.
But it might do us good to amplify the crèche scene, to include the whole Christmas reality – not (foolishly) buff naked men with washboard abs – but, in the background and among the shadows, a tall, wraith-like, and sinister figure, brandishing a sword. More than the greed of a Scrooge threatens the spirit of Christmas. He stands for the jealous State, and he threatens anyone who would dare honor this newborn child as “my liege and sovereign Lord.”
The early Christians had a code greeting at Easter, which we know so well. We need one for Christmas too. Not a merry but a subversive Christmas greeting: “Our king is born. – He is our king indeed.”
Image: The Nativity by Philippe de Champaigne, 1643 [Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille]