December 25, 2008
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... ” So begins Charles Dickens’ historical novel
A Tale of Two Cities. In one of the most popular novels of the Victorian Age, Dickens deftly captures both the turmoil in the social conditions surrounding the French Revolution and the commitment to morality found in good people. His work has never gone out of print because it is the story of every age.
For some, the social inequality, the troubled economy, violence, and moral confusion of our day may seem like the worst of times. Yet, the celebration of Christmas is the Christian affirmation that each age can truly be the best of times.
The birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is more than a simple narrative. It is the theological statement of the Christian faith that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and the very Son of God. But it is also a tale of two cities: the city of God and the city of man. Luke tells this tale by speaking of two kings. The first is acclaimed as king on the political stage of world events. The other is already heralded by angels and acknowledged by shepherds as king.
With warm colors, Luke paints the birth of Jesus. It is one of the most beautiful portraits the world has even seen. A poor family is constrained to leave the security of their home. Joseph makes every effort to provide for his young wife. Deprived of comfort, Mary gives birth to her son, wraps him in swaddling clothes and rests him in a simple bed, a manger hewn from rock and filled with straw. Beneath this scene of warmth and love, there is another message that Luke is speaking.
The titles that Luke gives Jesus at his birth come with a history from the secular politics of the day.
Lord. Son of God. Savior. The Roman senate conferred these very same titles on the emperor. The Romans hailed him as “Divine Augustus Caesar, Son of God, Savior of all the world.” Even their coins spread this propaganda. A first century denarius bears the portrait of Augustus wearing the laurel crown symbolic of Augustus as a victorious general. The other side bears the inscription: “Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Julius, Father of the Country.”
It is against this background that Luke tells his readers that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world and Lord. He is saying something not only about Christ, but also about Caesar. The Romans deified Caesar because he ushered in the
Pax Romana by waging wars and winning. People were united under his authority by force. But Jesus enters the world as one with the poor, the immigrant, the stranger and the struggling. He comes in the midst of all humanity. He comes to bring peace, not by imposing it from without, but from within.
Protected by the Praetorian Guard and with soldiers ever ready to do his bidding, Caesar Augustus ruled. Jesus rules by conquering the human heart with love. He reveals the way to unity and peace through justice, charity, compassion and forgiveness. He comes to free the world from the selfishness that deprives so many of the goodness of this life. Christians profess in their creed that he is “God from God,” yet conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He enters human life as all of us do, as a baby. His birth proclaims that human life in all its stages is good, holy, and worthy of protection.
Within the nativity narrative, Caesar Augustus embodies the city of man. He imposes the rule of power over all. Christ, however, embodies the city of God. In his birth among us, the Son of God respects our freedom to accept God’s love for us and to cherish in return every other person in justice and charity. Only such love will bring lasting peace.
Christmas truly is the tale of two cities. We choose which truth becomes our history today.