Her Majesty the Queen of England and head of the Church in England spoke of the symbolism of light in her 2020 Christmas message. This year bodies celestial have conspired to put on a display for the world to see that, by the naked eye, planets Jupiter and Saturn appear like the Star of David in the night sky. Dubbed popularly as the ‘star of Bethlehem,’ Johannes Kepler speculated that the Star of David, followed by the wise men (unnumbered) who most likely came from Babylon; having been influenced by the Jewish peoples’ stint in that same region during the first exile, followed to Bethlehem, the house of bread, which was to be the birthplace of Christ Jesus, the Bread of Life.
The modern American Church Father, G.K. Chesterton (the new worlds C.S Lewis), waxed lyrically upon this theme of the incarnation in his poem where he wrote, ‘…but our rest is as far as the dire-drake swings, and our peace is put in impossible things, where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings round an incredible star’ – (Poem – The House of Christmas). This contrasts our false sense of home in this world with the wandering star which led to the homeless Christ Child in which we find our home in heaven.
Now to be sure, the scene of the Holy Family in a stable is an invention of medieval art and is mythical. Our Lord was probably housed by the family of Joseph. The idea that they were refused their accommodation is modern speculation of Christian movies. The phrase ‘inn’ would be better translated ‘guest room,’ coming from the Greek word ‘kataluma,’ the same kind of room Christ was to celebrate the first Eucharist in. However, what a slight upon the Son of GOD and the Holy Family to be cast into the lower chambers where the animals were fed. No doubt, in part this was due to the shame of Mary, found pregnant before the marriage was consummated, and Joseph who had not yet shared the angel’s apocalypses with them. As the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observed in his writing on the infancy narratives, there was a parallel between them having ‘no place in the inn’ with ‘He came to what was His own and His own people did not accept Him.’ He who was to be crucified outside the city of Jerusalem began His life outside the gathering place of His family; numbered among the criminals at His end. His beginning was to be numbered among the animals. He, however, by the sheer weight of His person and the value of His identity as the Son of GOD, subverts what is seen as important. Suddenly, this humble beginning places value upon the least and the poorest; imbibing them with the dignity of kings. The powerless can be powerful; the weak can be strong. That which is undervalued by the world can be of the greatest value in the sight of GOD the Father. Thus, as Cardinal Ratzinger states, ‘So one aspect of becoming Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants… and considers important, and to be guided by this new order of being to the reorientation of our lives.’
Teilhard de Chardin, a modern French Church Father, compared Christ’s entering the world to an artist entering his studio, whereas C.S Lewis (a modern British Church Father) compared Christ’s entering into the world to that of a warrior slipping behind the enemies lines. The imageries are all grasping to capture the essence of the moment. The work had begun, the great mystery was about to be revealed, and all the schemes of the enemy were to be undone. Liberty was to be restored to this occupied territory by acts that, by their very nature, are filled with the poetry and nuance of the artist who created the heavens and the earth – which pour forth speech! Man and GOD are to be found as one! Raymond Brown observed that the Christmas stories while being filled with charm, are indeed harsh tales because we know the end from the beginning. Traditionally, therefore, icons of the blessed Lord at His nativity depict His ‘swaddling clothes’ as funeral wraps.
Much like how our Christmas this year is lived under the decrees of parliament and governors alike who insist ‘each to his home and travel not,’ so the decrees of Emperor Octavian Augustus (emperor from 30 BC – 14AD) and his excellencies satrap Quirinius, as well as the command of Herod driven by envy and hatred (who died before 1AD by our calendar; and therefore Dionysius Exerguus, who gave us the BC/AD calendar, made an honest miscalculation in his dates – but still very close – based on an actual deduction of 30 years due to his reading of Luke 3:23), forced the Holy Family, first to Bethlehem, David’s royal city, and then from there to Egypt.
The census would have been carried out in parts and would have probably started in other regions before reaching Israel in the time of Herod. Indeed, the classical historian, Josephus, places the census in the time of Quirinius around AD 6. However, his dating is to be doubted, as he gets other dates wrong such as the rebellion of Thaddeus and Judas the Galilean. Thus, this was probably the year it concluded, as opposed to its beginning. The tragedy of lives interrupted by circumstance, plans laid waste, bonds of fellowship already strained, torn apart, and doubled down by the cruelty of circumstance. The historical context of our narrative places it beyond the bounds of myth and legend. We see this drama to be lived out in real history; much like our own, beset on all sides by the conflicting aspirations of the parties involved. As much as the Kaiser counted the living for the sake of taxes, so now elites count the dead of a plague. In between it all, our families, the only rock upon which society and civilisation are built, must try to do the best with their lives.
Through all circumstances, however fraught with trouble and anguish, GOD will achieve His purposes. The divine, that great reality that sits at the base of all things, has at divers times through history achieved His purposes through earthly rulers. Now is no different from then. St. Cassian saw as poetry the artistic masterstroke in the image of Augustus commanding the world to be gathered for the census, and our Lord, now gathering pagans (the Wiseman) and pious Jews (the Shepherds) to Himself. Christ was registered in the fallen world, so that we by adoption, can be ‘registered’ in the next. Just as Joseph trusted in the Lord in His circumstances, so we must also move forward with faith in ours.
The Son of Man was born in royal David’s city (in fulfilment of the prophecy of 2 Samuel 7:12-16 and Micah 5:1-2 which written centuries before). He had established His kingdom; a counter-revolution had begun. The reactionary had sought to overturn the revolutionary. With a revolt of His own; one performed in His own unique character and way. The dictators of this world live in palaces, while the King of this world was placed in a feeding trough for animals. The dictators of this world live luxurious lives demonstrating their prestige in robes, gold, and jewels, and the finer things of life, and demand all bend their knee to their virtue-signalling ways. Albeit, Christ began his life in poverty, sages, saints, angels, and simple shepherds came to Him in reverence to His birthplace, inspired by the signs and potentates that accompanied His birth. Thus, the sign of Him being laid in a manger is the fulfilment of the prophecy, wrought centuries before in Micah 1:3 in that ‘The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib.’ He is the bread of heaven, the spiritual food upon which we must eat in this world of dross; and that by the beauty of His person and virtue of His ways, our souls will be nourished and brought to an even higher rank; eventually to be numbered with the angels – singing ‘Glory to GOD in the highest and peace on earth to the people of His favour.’
So, it is with zeal and crusading spirit we should commit ourselves to the peace of the Church! (A textual variant is at play here between ‘the peace to those who GOD gives it based on his good pleasure’, and ‘the peace to those who have goodwill toward others,’ the former rendering is better attested.) Only when justice is driven by love and not the ‘will to power’ can there be equity and peace. The challenge we all face is to grow in this love.
The ‘stratias‘ (literally, the Greek can be translated – ‘a multitude of the armies of heaven’) of angels that proclaimed His birth were announcing a rightful King, to whom the victory was won; a victory he would not deny by calling upon them in the night of His passion! They called him ‘Lord’ but this was a reference reserved for GOD alone. In Hebrew piety, not less than among the piety of Angels, the declaration was clear: GOD is amongst us! Emmanuel is born of a young maid! He is the battle standard upon which all Christians should rally, the ‘sign’ of our victory as Elizabeth’s pregnancy was a sign of the truth of the Angels greeting to Mary. Prophesied of old, expected eagerly with anticipation – both then and now. Therefore, with confidence, we should enter into the fray of battle armed with the weapons of charity, kindness, patience, diligence, love, hope, faith, prudence, justice, chastity, and the worship of the one GOD, placed above that of every parliament, president and dictator – all with zeal for His house! Christ, the firstborn of Mary, is the firstborn of Heaven, and as such is heir to all things of His Father, in heaven and on earth. As His adopted brothers and sisters, we must, like Him, serve the Father’s will here ‘on earth as in heaven’ and pursue the vocation that is given to us to walk, whatever that may be, so that upon His return we might be found the good and faithful servants.