The Manger’s Revolt

Mary's Magnificat

by Ken Sehested,
Text: Luke 1:46-55

        One of the great political debates of our generation is which phrase is more appropriate this time of year: “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas”? This is but the latest front in the culture wars fought over whether we should “keep Christ in Christmas.”

        Like with every cultural conflict, there are multiple levels that we need to sort out, putting up resistance in some places, offering affirmation in others. Let’s look a just a few bits of complicated history regarding the celebration of Christmas.

        Most of you know that the date of Jesus’ birth was never considered important by the early Christian community. As late as the 3rd century Christian leaders were publicly denouncing the practice of cutting evergreen trees, or boughs from such trees, into the home and decorating them.

        Part of that objection goes all the way back to the prophet Jeremiah, writing in the 6th century BCE. “Thus said the Lord, learn not the way of the heathen. . . .For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest…” and they “decorate it with silver and gold” (10:2-4).

        Truth is, though, that a popular custom in the Roman Empire before and after the birth of Jesus was a week-long feast of Saturnalia, celebrating the pagan god, Bacchus. The festival was like a New Orleans Mardi Gras on steroids. The Roman Senate actually approved legislation relaxing most criminal prosecution during that week, which was marked by drunken orgies and parties of naked revelers roaming the streets and singing. (This, by the way, is probably the beginning of what we think of as Christmas caroling.)

        One of the more vile elements in that tradition was the practice of scapegoating. A victim was selected—some sort of marginalized outsider or illegal immigrant—who would be forced to gorge himself with food and drink and then be pummeled by assembled crowds and eventually executed. As late as the 15th century in Europe, Jews were often selected as the scapegoats. In one account, all the city’s rabbis were force-fed, then made to run naked through the streets.

        By the 4th century, the Christian church was officially recognized by Rome as the religion of state, and the church, wishing to pull more members into its rank, assigned Jesus’s birth as December 25, in the middle of the traditional Saturnalia festival, and promised new converts they could continue the old ways just so long as they paid homage to Christ.

        One of the great ironies for us, especially those of us here in the U.S., is that our religious descendants—the Puritans and the Baptists, religious dissenters from Great Britain’s Anglican state church—were publicly opposed to any celebration of Christmas. The Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony actually invoked a legal ban on Christmas observance in the late 17th century. Partly because the observance reminded them of Anglican customs; but also because the holiday still included a healthy tradition of eating and drinking to excess, and drunken “wassailing,” which occasionally turned violent.

        Records of the General Court of the Colony, May 11, 1659, read in part: “For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, shall pay for every such offense five shilling as a fine to the county.”

        One of the more significant things we do each year as a congregation is our observance of the feast of St. Nicholas Day, when we honor that 4th century saint of the church, by anonymously delivering baskets of food to those living in poverty. St. Nicholas is one of many cultural traditions from around the world that melded over the centuries to form the popular tales of Santa Claus. It was the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas that most immediately predates the modern Santa Claus. In his satirical “History of New York,” published in 1809, the author Washington Irving stripped the mythical figure of his bishop’s robe and put him in fur-lined clothing, looking more like a fat Dutch merchant. Within a few years, flying reindeer pulling a sled were part of the picture.

        Then in 1863, illustrator Thomas Nast painted the famous cover of Harper’s Magazine Weekly with the “jolly old elf” now renamed “Santa Claus.” In that illustration, Santa Claus is giving presents to Union soldiers and to children. But in one hand is dangling a stringed puppet with the unmistakable likeness of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It’s clear that one of the strings is around Davis’ neck. So, Santa Claus’s official debut is providing comfort to impoverished children and to embattled soldiers during a bloody war. AND it functioned as a piece of war propaganda.

        Early in the 20th century the more recognizable depictions of Santa Claus were drawn as part of marketing promotions by beverage companies, the most famous one being the one Coca-Cola produced beginning in 1931.

        One more little tidbit of history regarding Santa Claus. Two days ago, December 19, was the anniversary of the “Boston Tea Party,” the famous act of resistance against English imperial rule, when a band of colonists boarded British vessels in Boston harbor and dumped overboard crates of tea in protest to taxation laws. The name of organization which planned that act of civil disobedience was the “Sons of St. Nicholas.”

        I’ve already mentioned the early church’s opposition to the practice of decorating homes with evergreen trees. And similar abolition attempts by our dissenting congregational and baptist forebears in colonial America. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Christmas trees became a common custom around the holiday. The small tree industry got a huge boost when U.S. President Franklin Pierce arranged to have the first such tree in the White House in 1850. The first documentary evidence of a Christmas tree showing up in a church sanctuary was about the same time, when Rev. Henry Schwan of Cleveland, Ohio, installed one in his Zion Evangelical Lutheran sanctuary. He also got run off, with at least one member threatening him with bodily harm.

        Public acknowledgment of Christmas continues to stir controversy. Court cases around the country have declared for, or against, the display of Christmas trees or nativity scenes in public buildings. And letters to the editor in our newspaper continues arguing the relative merits of shopping mall merchandizing phrases should say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”

        The thing that should worry us the most was the sentiment expressed by a 1984 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling [Lynch v. Donnelly] in favor of the Pawtucket, Rhode Island city government’s practice of erecting a city-sponsored Christmas display. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that such a practice had become a “passive symbol” which “engenders a friendly community spirit” and “serves the commercial interests” of the merchants.

        To this day that judicial decision stands as the most prominent legal assessment of the meaning of Christmas. Without intending to, Chief Justice Burger delivered in those words a prophecy as clear and as excruciating as any in Scripture. The birth of the Messiah, which so terrorized Herod, has in our day become a passive symbol, one that serves our culture's commercial interests.

        This gets at one of the worst cultural assumptions about the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The song of Mary—which we read earlier, and which Jessica interpreted in dance—is among the most subversive political texts ever uttered. There was a time, during the 1980s in Argentina’s “dirty little war” against political dissidents, that it was literally illegal to publish Mary’s song of praise.

        Mary was neither gentle nor meek. The context of Jesus’ birth was the Roman census which required Palestinian citizens to return to ancestral cities for registration. That’s why pregnant Mary and the shame-faced Joseph were on the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The census was a bitter reminder of Rome’s brutal system of taxation, a system which the Jewish Temple’s authorities collaborated in and profited from.

        The original nativity scene unfolded in a barnyard stall, the only emergency shelter available. Hygiene was not a factor. Jesus’ “swaddling clothes” were rags, and his “manger” (what a lovely word!) was an animal feeding trough filled with the remnants of grain mixed with cow slobber. Having been warned by visiting royal dignitaries from “the East” that a messiah was to give birth, King Herod ordered a slaughter of all male infants in the area; and the Magi themselves had to be smuggled out of town on back roads.

        It is hard, very hard, for me to imagine a “sweet baby Jesus, no crying he makes.” What I see is blood-soaking straw where Mary lay, probably wanting to die if not actually near death, and Joseph nearly beside himself both with paternal concern, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, wondering how in the world he was going to explain this illegitimate child to the family back home. And then because of the threat from Herod’s death squads, loading Mary and baby Jesus back on the donkey for a midnight escape through the desert to Egypt.

        This is the political debate in which we, who name ourselves as followers of Jesus, should be engaged. The manger’s revolt is not whether nativity scenes belong on courthouse lawns, or whether binge shopping should be of the “Christmas” kind or merely the “holiday” version. The revolt is against established economic agreements and traditional political arrangements. It was to shepherds, the lowest, grimiest labors, to whom the angels appears with the announcement of great tidings. And that annunciation of heavenly news will continue to trouble the Herods of our age. If we are to overhear this song of Mary, this singing of the angels, this announcement from highest heaven confronting the disorder of the world as we know it, we will need to be present on those midnight hillsides with grimy laborers, with teenage peasant girls, with any and all who have been systematically shut out of the empire’s arrangements of value and worth.

        Let me close with a poem inspired by Mary’s song—a song of praise but also a hymn of revolt.

If you know this traditional prayer, say it with me:

        Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

        Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

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Circle of Mercy • Asheville, NC • 21 December 2008
©Ken Sehested @