Considering Advent’s insurrectionary promise

by Ken Sehested

 Advent is a season of great longing, specifically for those longing “from below” of history’s malignant dominion.

The longing is a revolutionary one, however, and frightening to those in charge, who have much to lose if existing hierarchies are breached. Such anxiety is what fueled Herod’s terror against male infants in and around Bethlehem.

This narrative parallels the ancient scene in Egypt when Pharaoh, sensing an internal threat, orders the Hebrew midwives to kill Israelite baby boys.

That narrative is the first case of civil disobedience recorded in Scripture, though the names of the two who conned Pharaoh – Shiphrah and Puah – are rarely invoked.

Those in power long for continuity; and, given the current state of the U.S., that longing is more like an anxiety.

Yet, the promise is made specifically and only to “those that sit in darkness.”

Both Herod, and previously Pharaoh, were terrified by this longing, as were all who aligned with their respective regimes.

In 2020, the U.S. admitted only 12,000 refugees, down from 207,000 welcomed in 1980, when the formal U.S. Refugee Act was initially approved.

To those in power now, undocumented immigrants are the ones to fear; though large sectors of our economy are dependent on immigrants’ cheap labor.

I spent several years laboring as a stonemason, for $10 per hour doing very strenuous work. Then my boss found out he could hire an undocumented laborer from Mexico for $8 per hour.

“Nothing personal,” he told me.

Foreign governments haven’t stolen our jobs. Business leaders in the U.S. have simply obeyed the logic of predatory capitalism.

I recently purchased new undergarments manufactured by a major U.S. brand name. The briefs were made in Vietnam; the t-shirts, in Haiti.

And I finally joined the cellphone age, with an iPhone assembled in China. Much of the world knows that much of the cobalt needed for lithium batteries is mined under harsh conditions in war-torn parts of Africa.

The Christmas story in the Gospels is a story of terrorism. And the Gospel authors are clear that competing claims are being made.

Consider this background to the language surrounding Jesus’ birth, which describes the ideological conflict being played out.

We sometimes forget the backdrop to the nativity story, particularly of the great Caesar Augustus who ruled much of the known world. Many inscriptions describing Caesar’s divine status can still be found.

There you can read about the “gospel” – literally, euangelion, the same root word in Greek we Christians use when we speak of evangelism.

In Rome’s imperial world, gospel was the good news of Caesar’s having established “peace and security for the world.”

Before Jesus, Caesar was described as a “savior” who brought “salvation” to the world. Because of this, citizens were to have “faith” in their “lord.” The words “faith” and “lord” are the same ones in the Jesus story.

Elsewhere, Caesar is referred to as the “redeemer” who has “saved the world” from war and established “peace on the earth.”

Do you see where this is going? Can you feel the sharp relief of those nativity stories rising from the ornamental rendering we give them each Christmas?

The birth narratives are more than sweet lullabies. These are incendiary stories. They are bold contradictions to Roman imperial authority.

No wonder Herod was troubled when the magi told him of the birth of a new king!

All of which is to say, Advent and Christmas are dangerous seasons, when competing visions and loyalties go head-to-head.

Jesus’ birth was considered a subversion of present arrangements. It is no less so now — though Christmas itself has been thoroughly domesticated to serve reigning economic and political purposes.

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