Longing from below

An Advent meditation

by Ken Sehested

      Advent is a season of great longing, specifically for those longing “from below.”

      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 babies.

      This narrative parallels the ancient scene in Egypt when Pharaoh, sensing an internal threat, orders the Hebrew midwives to kill the baby boys. (That narrative is the first case of civil disobedience recorded in Scripture.)

      Those in power long for continuity; and, given the current state of the US economy, 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.

      To those in power now, undocumented immigrants are the ones to fear.

      The New Testament Christmas story is a story of terrorism. And the Gospel authors are clear that competing claims are being made. Here’s some background to the New Testament 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 the known world. Many inscriptions describing Caesar’s divine status can still be found. There you can read about the “gospel”—literally, euaggelia, 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 “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 is a dangerous season, 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.

      To those who now sit in the region of the shadow of death, fear not. Move on in the confidence that, should you be swallowed in some hidden crevasse, you’ll discover it’s only the fold of your Lover’s arm.

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org