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Christmas in the Empire

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Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. (Courtesy photo)
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I fully understand the appeal of a sentimental “white Christmas like the ones I used to know,” with “chestnuts roasting over an open fire,” “where all I want for Christmas is you.” The nostalgic, comforting, sweet Christmas has a hold on my heart, too.

But the Bible’s version of Christmas simply isn’t like that. Real Christmas is about light coming into real darkness.

The Roman Empire of Caesar Augustus is not a benign agent of peace. It is a feared instrument of oppression and terror. It exists for the glory of the emperor.

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Not too unlike calls today to register American Muslims, the purpose of the registration that brings the holy family to Bethlehem is to enter into the public record the names, property and lineage of every adult male. This information was crucial not just for tax purposes, or to allocate the overwhelming power of the Roman legions, but to crush whole families for the dissent of a single member.

Matthew writes about Joseph’s original plan to abandon his pregnant fiancee in a way that won’t get her killed as an adulteress. A prophecy about a child who will grow up to be king leads the insecure, megalomaniac King Herod to order the death of all male babies under the age of two. Herod then commissions three traveling Magi to unwittingly act as his spies.

To protect their baby, Joseph and Mary abandon home and everything they own to become refugees living in Egypt. That first Christmas is more like life on the road after fleeing Aleppo than a December day in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Why am I reminding you of this? Because we will never understand the joy until we have a taste of the darkness. Because what I want for Christmas this year is for you to become a prophet.

The 20th century Jewish civil rights activist Abraham Heschel calls the prophets, “the most disturbing people who have ever lived.” He goes on to write that we need them because, “A people may be dying without being aware of it; a people may be able to survive, yet refuse to make use of that ability.”
At no point in my life have these words seemed more applicable to our political situation. In the last month, we have become more conscious of the fragility of our Republic.

Suddenly, we are aware of connections that we had not so clearly seen before between climate change, arctic oil drilling contracts, Russian sanctions, electoral interference, racism and anti-immigration rhetoric, nuclear weapons, business ethics violations, Syria, tax policies, increasing inequality and a new climate of unkindness and incivility.

In the Book of Numbers Moses says, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Num. 11:29) and that is what we need today.

Christmas begins with an honest look at the darkness; but it does not end there. The heart of the season comes from the joy we experience in Jesus. Jesus teaches that in our love for each other as brothers and sisters, we will see God.

In contrast to the world’s great empires, Jesus describes a kingdom in which the powerless and the outcasts are welcome. He says that God’s relation to us is like a father welcoming home a disappointing but beloved child. Jesus says, “follow me” in the way of kindness and gentleness, in risking ourselves for the sake of love. We were made for this and it is the source of our greatest joy.

At Christmas and always, the darkness of cruelty and human struggles for power is true, but so is the angel’s message: “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.”

The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral.

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