For thirty years, Emperor Augustus had been the absolute ruler of the world. His empire stretched from the Pillars of Hercules to the Black Sea; in the north his soldiers trod the land of modern-day Scotland, in the south his frontiersmen guarded the great African desert. Augustus was a superhuman who succeeded to achieve what no man had been able before for 200 years: he brought about peace. To make this peace happen, hundreds of thousands of Romans had to die, and to keep it, millions of non-Romans groaned in slavery, paid taxes and sent their sons to serve as soldiers. According to the famous historian of antiquity, Arnaldo Momigliano, Augustus recognised Rome's need for peace: this served the interests of the empire and created the myth of the superhuman Augustus. It was no coincidence that Jesus Christ was born at this time. The Augustan empire, built of human power, greatness and glory, served as the historical backdrop to his birth, with a man who was already considered a god by his contemporaries because he had power like no man before him. At a single wave of this Augustus with unlimited power, a young couple set out on a journey in a tiny, dusty and miserable province some eight hundred kilometres from Rome. At the end of their journey, Jesus is born, in David's Ephrathah, by then a dusty little, no-name town. The shepherds pasturing their flocks in the area were waken up by the singing of angels. The narrative leaves us confused: is this real or a fairy tale? Is it historiography or a meditation on the contrast between power and vulnerability?
The prophecy of Micah is often quoted at Christmas: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel”. But less often we quote the sequel, “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be our peace". In an age in which imperial decisions were made based on Sibylline oracles, where the words of a prophecy were given greater veracity than everyday talk, this was dangerous talk. What is meant by “he will be our peace”? For there is already peace, the peace of Augustus! But the new-born Jesus came to rule over all human power.
In the narrative of the evangelist Matthew, the political reality is even more unmistakable.
Either the bloody peace of Augustus (and Herod) is the reality, or the peace of Jesus Christ. Both cannot be true at the same time.
The peace of Augustus, gained through blood and clever alliances, might have seemed more real than the peace of a new-born baby sleeping in a manger. But it soon becomes clear that they are not the same peace and not the same reality. The peace of Jesus came to us in the form of a persecuted new-born baby. He was barely born before a price was put on his head. Augustus' peace required a constant show of force, but Jesus' peace meant a complete renunciation of power. The peace of Augustus was a spotlight overcoming the darkness for a short while. The peace of Jesus is the rising sun that irrevocably and definitely banishes darkness.
Reading the nativity stories of Luke and Matthew, we are forced to rethink everything we thought we knew about history, reality, peace, power and glory. Jesus brought about peace, but Jerusalem did not want his peace. A few decades after Jesus' life on earth, not a stone was left on another in the scorched city. His birth was preceded by an imperial decree. His life, according to the message of the angels to the shepherds, served God’s glory, His benevolence and the peace on earth. And his death was again a punishment by a rebellious king according to imperial decrees: death on the cross.
Faith in Jesus of the Gospels forces us to reassess our concepts of power and glory. As we pray the Lord's Prayer, we ask God that his kingdom come and to let more and more of us see this other reality, this other power and this other glory, at Christmas, if not otherwise than through our own actions.
Dr. Ottó Pecsuk is a minister of the Reformed Church in Hungary, serving as the General Secretary of the Hungarian Bible Society and an Assistant Professor of New Testament Theology at Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary.