The angels are a staple of the Nativity story – when Sunday Schools perform at the carol service, children line up dressed in white and echo the words spoken to various players in the Christmas story. It’s cute, it’s sweet, it’s tradition, but it hides something far more militant and subversive.
Luke 1 and Luke 2 both include angelic proclamations, first to Mary, then to the shepherds in Bethlehem, but these are more than simply announcing the incarnation of God himself.- the angels have a radical political message.as well. It doesn’t always come across that way, because we’re so used to associating this language specifically with Jesus and Christmas, but at the time, these messages were dramatic, earth-shattering stuff.
Around 63 years earlier, Rome had annexed Judea. 12,000 Jews were slaughtered on the Temple Mount and the region becomes a client kingdom of the world’s only superpower. Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the others all live within this political context – they’re an occupied people.
Around 27 years earlier, Augustus becomes the first Roman emperor. He’d already decided to add “Divi Filius” – Son of the Divine – to his name, and he’d inaugurated the Pax Romana, an era of peace throughout the Empire. Of course, that was fairly easy to enforce when you’re supreme commander of a devastatingly effective military machine…
The Jews, of course, weren’t happy with this turn of events.They had a way out though – they were expecting the Messiah, God’s anointed ruler, a descendant of David who would drive out the occupiers and institute God’s kingdom on Earth. He would liberate his people, with the assumption being that would mean the Romans being booted out.
Keep all that in mind, and then look at the words of the angels recorded by Luke:
“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David…”
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah,the Lord…Glory to God in the highest heaven,and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
A promised ruler, descended from David? The Son of God bringing peace? The angels aren’t just bringing a message, they’re issuing a challenge – no, not a challenge, because that implies a conflict, and this is a statement of fact – God’s Son, the Messiah, has arrived and that means all other kingdoms and empires have to take their rightful before that.
Of course, that was Rome, an empire that’s now ruins and history. But the radical message of the angels still has relevance – after all, states, hegemonies and political structures still wield their power. Sometimes we get caught up with that, caught up with their apparent ability to change the world. If we can just get political power, well, everything will be okay and we’ll be able to get God on his throne.
As if he needs our permission somehow.
God is King. His Kingdom doesn’t look like our empires, doesn’t work to their rules, but it’s there. It doesn’t need our permission, or our legislation, or our prejudices. It doesn’t need labels like ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. It’s bigger than Obama or Cameron or the Pope, and it certainly doesn’t need the church to become another empire – the church already has a kingdom to inhabit, and that needs to align with Christ’s teachings and actions – if it doesn’t, it just becomes another example of the imperial idolatry the angels were challenging.
The message of Christmas is radical. We can’t afford to let power and empire blind us to that.