The year is 1965. The television station CBS.
Linus walks onto the stage, blanket in tow, for the very first time.
The lights dim and a spotlight illumines this solitary child who is going to tell Charlie Brown “what Christmas is really all about.”
And there were in the same country shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night, Linus begins, reciting the Authorized Version’s translation of Jesus’ birth narrative in the Gospel According to Luke.
Linus completes his recitation of Luke 2:8-14, then he quietly walks off stage and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Linus is correct, you know. That is what Christmas is all about.
It is about the advent, the arrival of a “Savior, which is Christ the Lord” who brings “good news of great joy which shall be for all people” through the promise of “peace on earth and goodwill towards humanity.”
Yet, neither Linus nor Charlie Brown nor the rest of us who hear Luke’s birth narrative each year often recognize this story for what it really is: a challenge to and critique of the status quo.
It is a political proclamation that is both revolutionary and subversive because it overtly challenges the authority of Caesar and critiques the means and methods of Roman rule.
In their book, “The First Christmas,” New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan reveal the political dimensions of this text by comparing and contrasting Roman imperial proclamations with Matthew’s and Luke’s birth proclamations.
When Luke’s gospel was written, they reveal, Roman imperial theology had already proclaimed, “the first-century emperor Caesar Augustus was … Lord, Son of God, Bringer of Peace and Savior of the World.”
Therefore, when Luke’s gospel applies these titles to “the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger,” it is not a sweet but subversive statement that demands a decision from its readers (and hearers).
Do we accept these titles as applicable to Caesar or the Christ? Put another way, do we accept Caesar’s way of peace or the Christ’s way of peace?
This choice, Borg and Crossan assert, is between widely divergent paths because, while both offer salvation and peace, the ends comes through antithetical means.
In their own words, “that clash of visionary programs for our earth is the context and matrix for those Christmas stories, and they proclaim God’s peace through justice over against Rome’s peace through victory.”
Caesar brings peace and salvation through a program of violent conquest, while Jesus brings peace and salvation through a program of nonviolent justice.
Borg and Crossan’s insight into the birth narratives is important because it enables us to read the Christmas story in the context of Roman imperial theology rather than solely in the light of later popular Christian theology that often fails to hear the political revolt contained within them.
When we begin to hear this story as a challenge to and critique of the promise of peace through violence enacted by Rome, we can begin to hear this story as a challenge to and critique of the promise of peace through violence enacted by any person, group or nation past, present or future.
This story was revolutionary when it was written, and it continues to be today.
We just need eyes to see past and ears to listen through all of the sentimentality and shallow theology that has come to surround it.
When that happens, we will be able to reject any new manifestations of Rome’s imperial theology and join the multitude of heavenly hosts in praising God for the coming of peace on earth through the enactment of justice.