[Right about this time in every series, I wonder, “Are people reading these? Is it worth the time and effort? Does it matter, anyway?” Then I take a deep breath…and write some more.]
Something we mention but rarely stop to ponder about Jesus’ advent: he came to an occupied country.
Rome had conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C. At Jesus’ birth, Israel was going on three generations of Jews who had lived under Roman domination. In 70 AD, Rome would lay siege to Jerusalem and destroy the Jewish temple.
No one born in Jesus’ time knew a country free from political oppression. No one in his parents’ generation had, either. Life expectancy was not as long then, especially among the poor, so sixty years later there would be few left alive who had known the time before the Roman centurions marched into Jerusalem. When we read the Gospels—“…and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile”–they are often shaped by Israel’s being under military rule.*
The Bible gives us these details to root us in the concrete, historical reality of the time. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” These aren’t myths set in timeless abstraction. Jesus first opened his eyes into a world in which Roman soldiers could do as they pleased to Jews, Jewish tax collectors were backed by the power of the Roman military (and thus considered traitors to their people), and Jewish “rulers” ruled at the pleasure of their Roman governors. Thus, Herod “the Great” could do as he pleased to all the children under two years of age born within his province. Herod could do nothing that would suggest resistance to Roman authority.
Into this world comes Jesus. What does this mean?
Herod wanted to kill him because Herod feared Jesus presented a threat. Herod feared both a king who would usurp his power and anyone who would draw the ire of the Romans. When the Chief Priest and the council debate how to deal with Jesus, the argument hinges on how the Romans will destroy all of Israel
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.
From birth to death, Jesus had the specter of Roman power casting its shadow. When we read the Gospels we see that Jesus was not ruled by fear of this power and let it neither truncate his message nor urge him to violent reaction. I think it’s hard for us, in the midst of an ongoing national debate as to whether five thousand impoverished refugees fleeing for their lives represent a threat to our country, to imagine these martial law conditions under which Jesus entered the world.
Jesus came to bring us peace. Jesus came to be our peace. The prophesies about Jesus include that he will make all wars to cease. He shall be called “Prince of Peace,” and “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace.” We tuck this away and hope in this in a future sense. But the angels (I wrote about yesterday) sang:
“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
Our Prince of Peace is born in this season, and this season reminds us that he came to give us peace. He came in the midst of violence, under a violent, expanding empire, to be our peace. I am struggling to be peaceful, to live and spread peace, in this season. But Jesus did not live this way in a snow globe of tranquility, he chose and taught peace among a people oppressed by vicious, racist soldiers, and who in turn were seething for rebellion or revolution. They mocked and spat on Jesus and called called him “King of the Jews”–how racist is it to bludgeon and lacerate an unarmed man and then proclaim him king of his people while executing him?
From that position, Jesus forgave.
I want Jesus’ coming to be for me a calling to peace, to follow our Prince of Peace into a peaceful resistance of the violence within me and around me. I want to respond not out of anger nor fear, even to those who are angry and fearful, but as Francis prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
I need so much prayer for this. But it is a season of miracles.
*Roman soldiers, under Roman law, were allowed to force residents of conquered territories to carry the soldiers’ equipment up to one mile. Thus the radical nature of Jesus’ commandment.