Christmas 2016 – Literature and Liturgy
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). These are the opening words of the gospel read on Christmas Night at Midnight Mass (not to be confused with the Vigil Mass on the 24 December, in which Matthew 1:1-17 is read again). For many of us these words summon up warm memories of Christmas past, of cheerful childhood pageants, or of little Linus reciting this Christmas gospel in the Peanuts comic strip. But how were these words received by those early Christians who first heard them proclaimed in house-churches or read them in secret during persecutions launched by various Roman emperors?
Caesar (or Emperor) Augustus was the powerful pagan oppressor who claimed to be divine, who demanded worship from his subjects, and who had recently proclaimed a Gospel of Peace to the whole Roman world. Christians, like Paul, took up the emperor’s Greek word Euangelion and made it their own in a counter-Evangel-Godspel-Gospel, the Gospel of Christ in opposition to the Gospel of Caesar. This was the same emperor who was taxing small land owners into debt, then taking over their land and giving it to his generals. The very word register would have been offensive to anyone living under the yoke of Rome, Jews and Gentiles alike, and would have stirred up anger and bitterness at this census-taking for taxation. Even in our own times, tax is still considered a vile word in the minds of many.
And as for peace, even one of Rome’s great Latin historians had said, “They make a devastation and they call it peace.” Luke, of course, is careful not to say anything that might be considered seditious. But just the mention of Rome and registration in the same sentence was enough to call up a whole set of memories in those first Christians, which are nothing like the happy, tranquil memories which this gospel passage summons up for most of us today.
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son…and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). How many times has this passage been re-enacted with Mary and Joseph knocking on doors only to be turned away by some gruff inn-keeper! In his wonderful book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth Bailey points out that Mary and Joseph would have had relatives in Bethlehem and would have stayed with them, not in an inn. Most houses would have had a small guest room as well as an adjoining area where the goats were kept. The word incorrectly translated as “inn” referred to this guest room. It was already occupied, and so Mary and Joseph were offered the area that opened off the main living quarters. It was there, Bailey says, that the newborn Jesus would have been lain in a manger. The traditional ox and ass were borrowed (from Isaiah 1:3) by painters who inserted them in the scene, a pictorial allusion to the words, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”
Jesus, the tiny newborn Prince of Peace, asleep on the hay, will one day on the cross absorb all Rome’s cruel and merciless power and render it impotent by forgiving it. All this is only implicit in the Christmas story. For this, we need to turn to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, with of the escape of the Holy Family to Egypt and the massacre of the innocents (2:13-23), which will be read immediately after Christmas on the feast of the Holy Family. There we get a sense of what is yet to come.
All this makes not just great literature but powerful Liturgy. Great literature helps us relive the past, but liturgy makes the past present, here and now, in Mystery / Sacrament / Body of Christ. To which we can only say, Amen! Amen! Merry Christ-Mass!