The Advent story, as commonly conceived, tells of the remarkable events that lead up to the birth of Jesus, as found in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel. It also introduces the reader to some of the most powerful political powers of the time–and indeed, of all time.
Only then to ignore them.
Two of the story’s main characters, the elderly Zechariah and Elizabeth, are introduced as living “in the days of Herod king of Judea.” This Herod had no royal or priestly blood and, indeed, by descent was Idumean (or, to use biblical terminology, Edomite) and thus “had not a drop of Israelite blood” (so, rightly, Eusebius, Church History, 1.7.24). Nevertheless, he was raised Jewish (his grandfather had converted) and was regarded as Jewish throughout his lifetime, and in spite of his low pedigree (but thanks to family connections, phenomenal talents, and good fortune) he rose to become a client-king to the Roman emperor, ruling over all Judea.
Known in our day as Herod the Great, in his own day he was known for both his truly magnificent building projects and his merciless brutality.
As for his building projects, not only did he renovate (at his own expense, he would add) the ancient temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem (yes, the Temple) so that it justly became one of the “great wonders” of that world, he also built an entire “deep sea” harbor and city on the Mediterranean coast (which he called Caesarea Maritima) in only 12 years (one historian describes the harbor as “an engineering wonder that changed the shipping routes in the Mediterranean for centuries”).
As for Herod’s merciless brutality, the Roman emperor himself (the other political luminary mentioned in the Advent story, to be discussed momentarily) allegedly said, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son” (so Mocrobius’ Saturnalia 2.4.11), a comment that may reflect Herod’s kosher diet but certainly reflects the king’s paranoia, not least of familial and especially filial intrigue: within his own family alone he executed a wife and three sons, one just five days before his own death. And speaking of his death, on his deathbed Herod infamously instructed his sister Salome to quarantine certain Jewish elites (no doubt opponents) within Jericho’s hippodrome and at the hour of his death have them executed–why?–to make certain that at his passing there would be throughout the city a deluge of lamentation. Was he worried about the possibility of celebration? (Incidentally, she obeyed his command to quarantine the nobles but not to kill them.)
And yet in spite of either Herod’s astonishing capacity or cruelty–not to mention his impressively close connections with the family of Caesar Augustus himself, in the Advent story, he receives neither commendation nor critique; he is neither an opportunity to be exploited nor an oppressor to be exposed and overcome (although, yes, Matthew’s Gospel will have much more to say about the heart-wrenching brutality, if futility, of Herod’s scheming). Why is this?
Well, apparently, it’s because, for all his political power, Herod the Great is of little or no consequence to the coming of the King.
And as for Caesar, Luke gives Gaius Octavius Caesar, Rome’s first emperor (whom he calls “Caesar Augustus”) merely a cameo appearance, also giving a passing nod to a certain Quirinius, the governor of Syria. Known to historians as Octavian, the emperor conducts a “census” that is the occasion for the peasant couple’s journey to Bethlehem–all in fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecy. Thus, a man who…
(1) had united a fractured republic and created an empire, inaugurating the nearly 250-year-long pax romana, and
(2) had a month named after him (August) by the Roman Senate, and
(3) whose adoptive surname (Caesar) and title (Augustus) together became the way that subsequent emperors were called for well over a millennium
…is presented merely as an unwitting instrument of divine purposes in the fulfillment of ancient prophecy: Mary really needs to be in Bethlehem before her due date.
Again Luke offers neither commendation nor critique. Why? Because again, this colossal political figure is of astonishingly little consequence.
A celebrated biographer of Octavian recently offered the following lament in his introduction that, though no doubt right, is nonetheless revealing: “Yet in spite of his remarkable story and profound influence on the history of an empire which has shaped the culture of the western world, Caesar Augustus has slipped from the wider consciousness. For most people he is a name mentioned in Christmas services or school nativity plays and nothing more than that” (Adrian Goldsworthy, Augustus: First Emperor of Rome, p. 2).
And speaking of Mary, scholars regularly and rightly point out that by the standards of social status, political power and “privilege” of both her day and ours (with a few exceptions), she is a nobody. As Luke presents her, Mary is…
- a woman in a society that privileged men
- an adolescent in a society that privileged the elderly
- a maiden in a society that privileged mothers
- a rustic in a society that privileged the city
- a Nazarene–i.e., from Nazareth, a village (it seems) of ill-repute
- a peasant in a society that privileged wealth
- an ethnic minority, a Jew, in a Roman world
- likely an “illiterate” in a society that privileged learning
- a non-citizen in a society that privileged civic stature
- of unmentioned ancestry in a society that privileged pedigree
- engaged yet expecting and, therefore, ostracized in a society demanding fidelity
Mary, then, is the epitome of inconsequentiality.
Yet for Luke, what gives Mary both great status and consequentiality–what makes her, at least in part, “highly favored before the Lord”–is her social role in relation to him:
“I am the Lord’s servant.”
While this statement is surely a humble and God-glorifying embrace of the angel’s message–i.e., Mary is fully aligning herself with the divine agenda, it is also a statement of social worth. To cite a seminal study on the intersection of Christian salvation and slavery in Roman culture, “…a slave’s power and status were dependent on those of the owner. The well-placed slave of an important woman or man was an important person. It mattered less that one was a slave than whose slave one was” (Dale Martin, Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity, pp. 34-35).
That is, a servant’s status was directly determined by the worth of their master (or “Lord”): the more influential and exceptional a master was, the more important their servants were; conversely, to disparage, disrupt or defy a servant is to do the same to their master. As a servant of Israel’s God, Mary understood the influence and excellency of her Lord to be without equal, freeing her from the need for other sources of social worth and empowering her in a way that political power (or any other form of “privilege”) never could.
Mary believed that God had her exactly where he wanted and that her future was in his ever-caring, all-controlling hands: “May it be to me according to your word.”
But, importantly, the Advent story is no portrait of private, apolitical piety. Neither one of the birth/infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew remotely privatizes religion; but they absolutely relativize political power and critique the commonly accepted criteria of “privilege” found in both her culture and ours. And Mary is enthusiastically aware of this, as she herself says–or rather sings! We could summarize her song as follows:
(1) I celebrate my Savior as supreme (1.46-47), because…
(2a) He sees and saves the pious poor (48-50), yet
(2b) sabotages the proud, powerful and privileged (51-53), and so
(3) assists his servant Israel (54),
(4) just as He said he would (55).
Amazingly, Mary not only relativizes political power and privilege; she problematizes them, portraying them as altogether insecure and even unenviable possessions: we can’t keep them, and, frankly, we shouldn’t want them anyway. By contrast, Mary regards her position as far more empowering for two reasons: first, when it comes to power and privilege, because she doesn’t have anything, she’s got nothing to lose; second, she is riding the unstoppable wave of ancient divine promise, instead of relying on the ever-shifting winds of present-day political power.
In sum, in a way that is incredibly freeing (if quite foreign) to contemporary American Christians (myself included), many of whom have entered the Advent season as members of what David French calls an “exhausted majority” (found across the political spectrum), the Advent story looks at political power…and yawns. In the Kingdom of God the currency of political power has a value almost akin to the currency of Monopoly money: it fulfills a humble and divinely ordained role to be sure, but it can fool its owner into believing that it has a potency and permanence that it simply doesn’t.
Apparently, the awesome political power of a Caesar Augustus or Herod the Great just isn’t that great. But we American Christians (across the political spectrum) all too often seem to join our culture in wanting to make political power great again. Why?
In the Advent story “greatness” is reserved for the likes of John the Baptist (Lk. 1.15: “…and he will be great in the sight of the Lord”) and, of course, for Jesus himself:
“You will conceive and give birth to a son,
and you are to call him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.”
While we recognize how difficult the work of translation is (and just how excellent many of our English translations are), the English word “great” is trite and tired. The rather common Greek adjective μέγας (megas), like the Hebrew adjective גָּדוֹל (gadōl) that it regularly translates in the so-called Septuagint, means “of a degree, amount or intensity so uncommon as to be extraordinary, even unique,” so that one could translate it with words like pre-eminent, foremost, supreme, extraordinary or incomparable. To use grammatical terminology, the adjective, while positive in grammatical form, is superlative in meaning. As such, it is often accompanied by statements of comparison–for example:
“The house [i.e., temple] I will build will be great,
for great is our God beyond all gods” (2 Chr. 2.5)
“No one is like you, LORD; you are great” (Jer. 10.6)
“You are great and you work wonders,
you are God alone” (Ps. 86.10)
“Great is the LORD and to be praised exceedingly;
he is to be revered above all gods” (Ps. 96.4)
(See Ex. 18.11; Dt. 10.17; Pss. 47.3; 77.13; 99.2, 3; 108.4; 135.5; 136.4; 145.3; 147.5)
And such is the case in Gabriel’s announcement:
“He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.”
The precise way in which someone is “great” is determined by the immediate context, and given the meaning of “Son of the Most High,” Jesus’ “greatness” has to do with cosmic authority: relative to all other powers, he will be supreme, second only to “the Most High.” In sum, here Jesus’ greatness has to do with his authority, which is pre-eminent and, as the next verse will say, permanent: “…and of his dominion there shall be no end.” Compared to such cosmic pre-eminence and permanence, this world’s princes and presidents are mere pawns that quickly pass on.
Finally, as already hinted, it is Mary who celebrates the supremacy–i.e., the greatness–of Israel’s God (as the New Jerusalem Bible makes most explicit):
“My soul proclaims the greatness [Gk.: μεγαλύνει, megalunei] of the Lord…
for the Almighty has done great things for me–holy is his name!”
For Mary, what is it that makes Israel’s God so supreme (“great”) and so incomparable, like no other (i.e., “holy”)? It is precisely that He sees and saves those whom the world regards as not great–i.e., as “lowly”–and even selects them as servants through whom He will secretly, even surreptitiously accomplish His unstoppable salvific purposes in history–that is, right under Caesar’s nose.
In sum, the Advent story quietly yet unquestionably reminds its reader that what is presently shaping the world of tomorrow is almost certainly not being reported by the news of today. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.”
Therefore, Advent calls us Christians, whether progressive or conservative, away from our truly unfounded fears and frustrations, not to mention our foolish Facebook posts, and perhaps especially our most unfortunate fissures found all too often among family, friends and fellow believers and summons us instead to follow a Jewish peasant (and non-citizen) who had no place to lay his head and yet would somehow manage to be the linchpin of history.
For true power, true greatness, is found not in the ability to take or even to keep but rather to give and to go without.
And that is what Advent is all about.