December 24, 2017 10 am
There is no birth story in the Gospel of John. There is no birth story in the Gospel of Mark. There is one in Matthew and there is one in Luke.
In Luke we hear about the shepherds and the census and the angel Gabriel talking to Mary and the journey to Bethlehem and the birth in the traveler’s shelter and wrapping the baby Jesus in bands of cloth and laying him in a feeding trough or a manger.
In Matthew, we hear about the angel speaking in dreams to Joseph. We hear about the magi from the east who follow the star to the house where the child is. They bring the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In Matthew we hear the story of the escape to Egypt to save Jesus from Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children.
In Mark’s gospel, the identity of Jesus is a birth narrative without the narrative. Mark lets the audience know immediately that Jesus is the messiah and a son of a god. Mark’s gospel begins with this:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ (Messiah), the Son of God.”
Ancient biographies of heroes all had birth stories to show that the hero conformed to two beliefs of the ancient world. The first is that great people were born great. That is why they were great. The second belief is that Fate dictates our lives. The Fate is revealed in the stories of the child prodigy. ref. Robert J. Miller, Born Divine.
For instance Caesar Augustus was born divine. That is why the god, Apollo, and his divine father by adoption, Julius Caesar, favored him. Augustus was the savior of the world, god from god and the bringer of peace.
No biography of Augustus is complete without the story of his amazing birth. According to, Cassius Dio, a biographer of Augustus, his mother, Attia, claimed that she was sleeping in the temple of Apollo and dreamed that she had intercourse with a serpent, and this caused her pregnancy.
Augustus is thus son of Apollo, son of God.
The ancient biographies of heroes have some kind of heavenly sign, a genealogy, and story of a childhood prodigy. Cassius wrote in his biography this:
“…while the child was being brought up in the country, an eagle snatched from his hands a loaf of bread and after soaring aloft flew down and gave it back to him.”
Thus was the fate of Augustus to be the ruler, the bringer of peace, to demonstrate to the world, that he was favored by the gods. It was his fate.
It is not surprising that stories of the birth of Jesus were also created to show that Jesus was born of a god and his fate also was to bring peace.
The important distinction between Augustus and Jesus is this: How does each bring peace? For Augustus, and for empires prior and since, you bring peace with the sword. You seek the gods’ favor, you sacrifice in their temple. They bless you with War, then Victory, and then Peace. In that order.
At the gladiatorial games in February, we citizens of the the republic will be invited to repeat and obey the creed: War, Victory, Peace. I guess they have stopped using this phrase, but at one time during the Super Bowl, we would be presented with television advertisements by the navy stating:
That could have come straight from the lips of Caesar were Augustus alive today. It is all right there. Religion (Good). War, Victory, Peace, for everyone on Earth.
At the gladiatorial games in February, also known as the Super Bowl, the military presence will be obvious both overhead and on the field. Active servicemen and women from wherever the empire has sent them around the globe will be on television watching the Super Bowl themselves. We will watch them watch the game. The Super Bowl is our empire’s annual feast to the gods of war.
That is one of America’s holiest days. The other holy day is rather recent. September 11th is the day to remember the reason for the endless so-called war on terror and the need for all of us to hand over to empire willingly any semblance of freedom and decency we have left.
On September 11th we remember the enemy, the Muslim horde that attacked us. This is the reason we need to spend every last cent we have on the military and its industries is this so-called Global War on Terror.
And of course, anyone who spends an hour actually looking under the hood of this propaganda knows that it is a complete fabrication, beginning with who attacked us in the first place. A false flag—a common ploy by empire. The truth of this is just too scary for most to admit. It is tough propaganda to beat. Especially when you fill people with fear 24/7.
The reason I bring it up on Christmas Eve is to show the contrast between the birth of Augustus and the birth of Jesus. There could not have been two different, two diametrically opposed visions for peace. And yet, the power of empire is so strong and so good with propaganda, that the Jesus vision for peace was lost and ultimately subsumed under empire’s vision.
But at the outset, the vision of Jesus was clear. It is clear in the gospels.
And, I think this vision is becoming clear again especially as the latest global empire, ours, has been showing such severe signs of decay and corruption. The criminals and the billionaires in high places are securing for themselves as much of the wealth of Earth as they can gather into their gated communities before the whole thing collapses. Tax cuts for the wealthy as your Christmas present are just the beginning.
So what was Jesus’s vision?
Again, the vision of Augustus, the vision of empire, is this: Religion, War, Victory, Peace.
Jesus also began with religion. Who does God favor? According to Luke, God favors the shepherds and the young peasant woman, Mary. God favors those who appear to be losers in this empire-building game. They are the occupied, They are the ones sent hither and yon because of some imperial decree. They are the cannon fodder. These are the ones who barely hang on to their subsistence living, if they can. If they can’t they lose their land and enter indebtedness. These are the people whom the Jesus story says God favors. These are the street people. These are the occupied people. These are the people who can not afford most of the garbage peddled during the Super Bowl ads.
Their religion? Worship of the God who hears the cries of the enslaved and the oppressed. In the vision of Jesus, after religion comes wisdom. Paul understood Jesus to be the wisdom of God. The Sophia of God. This is Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:7:
But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory.
From the clarity of wisdom, comes the work—non-violent peace-building. Then comes Justice, a distributive justice where all benefit from the bounty of earth. Finally, peace.
See the difference? Not War, Victory, Peace. The vision of Augustus and every empire before and since.
But Non-violence, Justice, Peace. That is the vision of Jesus and the subversive strain of justice-seeking people before Jesus and since.
For reference, I recommend for your Christmas holiday reading Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth.
You want peace? According to Jesus: Work for justice. You get justice by following the mandate of divine wisdom through non-violence.
I am fascinated by this icon on the bulletin cover.
I am still not quite sure what it is.
It reads: Holy Angel Hesychia.
Hesychia was the Greek Goddess of tranquillity or peace. She was the daughter of Dike or justice.
The Eastern Orthodox Church created the mystical, contemplative prayer tradition of hesychasm. You get to God in this practice by being tranquil and through the practice of tranquility through meditation.
Other earlier Christians started to explore Sophia or Divine Wisdom as the pre-incarnate Christ. Hesychia and Sophia seem to have a connection. The tranquil, peacefulness, where nothing can disturb is the source and the force of wisdom of whom Jesus is incarnate.
In this icon, we have a winged Hesychia or tranquility holding the Logos, the Word, whom the Gospel of John associates with Jesus.
The Holy Messenger, the Holy Angel, Hesychia or tranquility, brings the Divine Word. The Word is announced through tranquility. Only then, when we are centered in tranquility, when we are nestled in the bosom of tranquility, as is the baby Jesus in this icon, can we tell the truth.
I have laid it out tough on Christmas Eve. Because you deserve it. You deserve all I have to give you while I still can. I respect you enough to tell you what I think is true, regardless of cost. You deserve permission and encouragement to explore what you likely already suspect.
Jesus was executed by empire and that is the fate for anyone who speaks out against empire’s abuses. But that is why we are here. The church is no social club for the suburban well-to-do. This is the place to face truth and to do something about it. We do so in the tranquility, in the trusting peace that empire’s worst is not the last word.
In the Gospel of John, we read about the Divine Logos, the Divine Word, who Paul called the Sophia, the Wisdom, of God.
“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
Not everyone gets it. Not everyone receives, not everyone believes in the meaning of Jesus’s name, that “God saves.” Not everyone accepts Jesus’s vision for nonviolence, justice, peace.
But there is more to this life than lies fed to us by empire and stuff sold to us at its unholy festivals. Perhaps among this gathering here this morning are some who will devote their lives to exploring (as opposed to mocking) what is true, and in so doing become free and in turn, show that path of freedom to others.