St. Luke’s telling of the Christmas story, which is read at Midnight Masses all over the Catholic world, commences by invoking the first-century’s most powerful man: “In those days Caesar Augustus published a decree ordering a census of the whole world.”
Here the emperor is doing a paradigmatically powerful thing. If you can count your people more accurately, you can tax them more efficiently and you can draft them into the military more expeditiously. So far, this story begins like all other ancient epics, by praising the strong and powerful.
But then St. Luke makes a canny move. He shifts his attention away from Augustus Caesar and toward a poor couple of no notoriety whatsoever, making their way to a dusty hamlet on the fringes of the Roman Empire. In the nothing town of Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to a child, who is wrapped up in swaddling clothes and placed in the manger where the animals eat. The baby is visited, not by courtiers, but by shepherds, who had, at that time, something of the status that street people have today.
Then an angel appears and announces that this destitute infant, to whom Caesar Augustus in Rome would pay absolutely no heed, is in fact the true Emperor: “I come to proclaim good news to you—tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord.”
To say “Messiah” and “Lord” was to imply that a new David had arrived, a new King of the Jews. But as any careful reader of the Psalms and Prophets would know, to say King of the Jews was to imply King of the world—which is precisely why the angel said his message was for “the whole people.” This true king—simple, humble, vulnerable, and non-violent—would establish an order, a kingdom of God, which stands athwart the order of Rome.
Lest we have any doubt as to which of these kings is more powerful, Luke tells us, “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in high heaven, peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests.’” We should not be sentimental in regard to angels, for the typical reaction to one in the Bible is fear. And we are dealing here with a stratia of these fearsome creatures. That Greek word, translated usually as “host” or “multitude,” literally means army. The only reason that Caesar Augustus was able to dominate the world is that he had the biggest army. But Luke is saying that the baby king actually possesses a bigger army, though it is one that fights, not with the weapons (arma) of the world, but with those of heaven.
It is of these arms and of this man that Luke sings. His subversive Christmas tale continues posing a question: which narrative do you accept? Which king do you follow? Caesar or Jesus?