Christmas Challenges Culture
In about 9 BC, an inscription was written in a city called Priene, in what is now southwestern Turkey, to commemorate the birthday of Augustus Caesar. It is now in the Berlin Museum, and it reads: “the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news for the world that came through him.” For the Roman Empire, the arrival of Caesar was a day to celebrate, because he was the way that peace and justice had come to the entire world.
Five years later, according to Luke 2:10-11, an angel made an announcement to some startled shepherds, in words that are remarkably similar to the Priene inscription. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” he said, “for today, in the city of David, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord is born to you.” Anyone familiar with the way Roman people talked about Caesar would have known what was going on here. The claim being made was that it was Jesus, not Caesar, who was the true source of good news for the world; it was Jesus, not Caesar, who was the true king, responsible for bringing peace and justice to the earth. Just like Isaiah and the other Jewish prophets had predicted.
The first Christmas, in other words, was a culture-challenging, world-subverting event. It was a way of undermining an entire empire by announcing the arrival of a new king - a king whose kingdom would be characterised by new beliefs, new ways of living and new loyalties. The twinkly music and the twee children’s choirs can obscure it, but every time “Hark, the herald angels sing” plays through a shopping centre tannoy system, it’s an announcement that a “new-born king” is around, and therefore that contemporary empire - liberalism, democracy, capitalism, secularism, and even the very commerce the shopping centre is promoting - is on the way out. As wonderful as families, presents, decorated houses, movies and turkeys are, they don’t really provide good news of great joy to all nations. Like Caesar, they bring peace and joy to some, but marginalisation to others. Like Caesar, they are temporary stocking-fillers, parodies of the real peace and joy that come through Jesus.
So Christmas is a time to challenge culture. Whether it’s by giving to those who can’t give back, inviting isolated people for festive dinners, or sharing the true gospel with those whose understanding of “good news of great joy” is a few days off and a hangover, let our words and our actions proclaim the real gospel, and the real empire, of Jesus. When Paul first preached in Thessalonika, the people were worried; it sounded like he was defying Caesar, and “saying that there is another king, Jesus.” He was, and there is. Happy Christmas.