The Nativity has been made into a pastoral scene, peaceful and calm, on a Hallmark Christmas card. It can be hard to celebrate such a pastoral holiday knowing that the world is still in flames.
In reality, the world was in flames at the first Christmas too, and the message of Christmas is one of liberation from oppression.
In reality, Jesus was born into a war zone, a colony. The shepherds that gathered at the manger would have been considered lower-class, undesirable elements by Roman elites and it would have been a point of unspeakable shame for an unmarried woman like Mary to "wrap her child in swaddling clothes and lay him in the manger."
It was a time of turmoil. The great wars were over, the world pacified and unified under the "civilized" iron fist of a tremendous empire. All across the known world, economic development progressed as the imperial armies built roads and outposts for their local puppet governments. The empire proclaimed an era of peace, of tolerance and diversity, claiming that every religion was welcome to flourish as long as the people bowed down to worship the emperor.
And yet, the Middle East proved to be a thorn in the side of this Empire. A small minority group, "backwards and uncivilized" in the eyes of the elites, refused to partake of the so-called progress that had been offered to them. They remembered a time when they had their own kings who had ruled with God's mandate. They were strict religious zealots, willing to die for their God in order to purge their land of the infidels. They launched guerrilla attacks against the legions of Empire, prompting swift unilateral military invasions that left thousands of civilians tortured, maimed, or murdered.
It was the 1st Century C.E. A time much like our own. The Empire was Rome, the rebellious colony was Israel. Into this arena, a strange man was born. Mary, his teenage, single mother gave birth to him in a barn in a rural backwater of this colonized nation, shamed and cast out by all of the innkeepers. Noone believed her when she told them it was God's son. They probably called her a slut and threw here into the street.
She married a worker and together they raised this child like many other children were raised - to work with wood, to fish, to pray, to make a meager living and to get by. Fearing the future, the local puppet ruler was hell-bent on snuffing out the prophesied leader. So when this boy was young, his family had to flee political persecution. He grew up as an illegal migrant in a foreign land.
Everyone was looking for a king, a new ruler who could shake off the empire and govern the people with discipline and strength, bringing back the rule of God's law. Because of the miracles he performed, some thought this child might be this long-awaited King. Yet when this boy grew up, he refused to become such a ruler. Instead, he gathered the people - the poor, the dispossessed, the outcast, the prostitutes, the sick, the shunned, the sinners, the marginalized. He led them by preaching that His kingdom - their kingdom if they chose it - was in their hearts. Rather than bowing to him, he asked them to bow to the Spirit of God within themselves and amongst themselves. Using parables and stories, he taught them to embrace their dignity as children of God. He preached that these - the oppressed, the marginalized - not some messianic King - could rule in the world he embodied for them. The law was not simply a strict reading of religious texts. The Law was in their hearts, manifest by his divinity. It was Love, a law through which they would liberate themselves.
Indeed, he taught that they would inherit the Earth. As a result, he was killed by the occupying army as a threat to national security.
The Prophet Isaiah foretold that when the Messiah came to earth, "the government would be upon his shoulders." Isaiah's listeners probably interpreted this to mean that He would rule the Earth as a monarch. Jesus subverted this dream: the Government that was upon his shoulders was the cross.
Looking at the circumstances of Jesus' birth completely changes the significance of his life and message. This is key, because the harsh conditions of Jesus' birth have not lessened over the past 2,000 years. Bethlehem is once again under marshal law, governed by an occupying army: Israeli apartheid. (It is this occupying army that is currently bombing and starving out civilians in Gaza). It was the Romans who killed Jesus, not the Jews as the Christian anti-Semites like to claim. But the state and ruling class of Israel today have made a pact with the new Rome, the American Empire. And our rulers still seem hell-bent on snuffing out any prophesied deliverance.
Yet as we know, this was not and will not be the end of the story. Jesus embodied the hope that revolutionaries must live by: faith that the dead shall rise again. As CLR James puts it, "touch that, and the whole thing goes." His movement dispersed, his body broken, Jesus knew that history, as always, goes on. The cross, the Imperial symbol of persecution, was transformed into a rallying cry of hope. Like a dispatch from the underground, the message remains: "He goes before you to Galilee."
That is why we can celebrate. So have a Merry Christmas!