“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” (Luke 2:1)
The words are so familiar that we don’t give them a second thought. But this is how the Christmas story begins: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” We don’t know when this census took place, or its reason, but it was probably confined to Judaea for the purpose of taxation and control. King Herod had to raise taxes on behalf of Emperor Augustus in order to control a turbulent country regularly threatened by the uprisings of Jewish zealots. Herod was nervous and fearful. Any talk of a messianic leader sent shivers up his spine. So he decreed that everyone should be registered in their hometown. Mary and Joseph set off from Nazareth for Bethlehem, a town as crowded then as it often has been since, but they had not gone online to book accommodation. So Jesus was born in a stable in a town occupied by foreign troops that would soon massacre all the children born at that time, out of fear that what the wise men from the east had told Herod would come true.
Fast forward to Bethlehem today, a town that is normally bustling with Christian pilgrims from across the world at Christmas. As usual, the massive Christmas tree has been erected and lit on Bethlehem’s Manger Square, but the crowds are not there as in previous years because of the unrest in Israel-Palestine. There are fewer pilgrims from elsewhere and fewer Palestinian Christians born and bred in Bethlehem. Many have left to escape the military occupation and others cannot get to Bethlehem because of all the checkpoints. If Jesus was meant to be born in Bethlehem today, Mary and Joseph would have been turned back by soldiers long before they got there.
Bethlehem is no longer that little town in the Christmas carol that lies still in “deep and dreamless sleep” as the silent stars go by. But the final lines of the carol remain true: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I am not sure what Philip Brooks had in mind when he penned those words, but it is undoubtedly so that the birth of Jesus brought fear to Herod and others in the hierarchy of power just as his coming brought hope to all who were looking to God for deliverance. Sadly, after 2,000 years, fear and hope continue to confront each other in Bethlehem as they do across the globe — the fear of those who refuse to heed the cry for justice and peace, and the hope of those who bear witness to the Prince of Peace. But sadly, even many Christians are losing hope.
Father Jamal Khader of the Latin Patriarchy, which traditionally leads Bethlehem’s Christmas celebrations, said: “We cannot forget what is going on, that there are people suffering. People are losing hope in a future of peace.” Those words have seared my soul since I read them. “Losing hope in a future of peace.” Does this mean that fear for the future is winning the struggle against hope? Even though we live in relative peace, there are many of us who also fear for the future having lost hope in a future of peace. And yet, is it not true that Jesus was born at a time when fear was rampant and hope a rare commodity? It was in the midst of an oppressive occupation that the angels sang their protest song: “Peace on earth, goodwill to all.” It is, in fact, precisely because the world is in the mess it is, that the message of Christmas is so important.
To celebrate Christmas today as yesterday is an act of protest, an act of defiance against all the powers that are threatening our future, and that of our children and grandchildren. That is why Christians in Bethlehem have again raised a huge Christmas tree in testimony to the Prince of Peace, a sign of hope in a fearful world. Think of it. Every Christmas tree that we erect in our homes or churches or civic spaces is, rightly understood, an act of protest: of faith against despair, of love against hatred, of hope against hopelessness. That is what the celebration of Christmas is all about.
This too, is why, during Advent as we journey toward Christmas, our celebration of the Eucharist concludes with the shout: “Maranatha!” — a word with which the New Testament ends. It means “Come quickly, Lord!” At a time of intense persecution and suffering, the early Christians were expressing their hope that a new day would dawn, a day of justice and peace. They looked forward in anticipation to the time when the peace of Christ would reign, when fear would cease and their hopes be realized. Maranatha was a cry of defiance, a protest action. Such “hope against hope” remains at the core Christian faith — it is the hope that tyrants will be overcome and violence cease, a hope that keeps us from despair, a hope that empowers us to act for justice. For to lose hope and stop working for peace and justice is to surrender to evil, to allow ugliness to conquer beauty, and hatred trump love. It is to give the king Herods of this world the victory. It is to stop celebrating Christmas.
So we continue on our journey to Bethlehem in solidarity with all the Christians gathered there even if we can’t be there physically. We stand with them in Manger Square before the Christmas Tree, we enter the Church of the Nativity and visit the place where Jesus was born. And we do so because we refuse to stop believing in Jesus who came to bring a just peace to the world, a peace that the world cannot give us. In the darkest of times we shout “Maranatha” in protest against everything that stands against the coming of the Prince of Peace.
I conclude with another Advent sonnet written by Isobel:
He first came as a vulnerable babe,
Rejected then for how he claimed God’s word,
They killed him but he rose up from the grave.
He comes a second time to each one’s heart –
Who opens it, the Lord comes in to stay
To cleanse and make it new in every part.
But we await that great and glorious day –
He’ll come in power to renew the earth,
Yet in our waiting do we just okay
The status quo or do we help to birth
The new in everything we do or say?
God knows our world is full of pain, of need:
Come, Lord, bring peace and justice now indeed.
John W. de Gruchy is Emeritus Professor of Christian Studies, University of Cape Town in South Africa and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch. This is a weekly meditation given at the Eucharist service at Volmoed Christian Community Centre, Hermanus. He writes at the Anabaptist Network in South Africa, where this originally appeared.