is a columnist for the Boston Globe
Each year in our house it falls to me to place the figures of the creche on the mantle - the kneeling Mary and Joseph; the infant in his tiny manger; the dark-skinned Magi with turbans and gold; camels laden with treasure; the donkey with fixed eyes; the ox, indifferent; the shepherds, one leaning on his crook, one cradling a lamb; an angel. The wise men are brilliantly draped in reds and blues, the others in browns and grays. The baby has his arms open to the cosmos. These plaster-of-paris figurines are mine to arrange because, many decades ago, my crafty mother fashioned them, using latex molds and tiny paint brushes. The Nativity scene is my main memorial of her.
Such nostalgia is of the essence in the Christmas season, as the same old music fills the air. The images of Christ's Nativity - well-known people and respectful animals clustered beneath a scout of the heavenly host - are an archetype of Western culture, transcending the religious tradition from which they spring and evoking a broader sense of warmth and good cheer. Familial intimacy, the drawing together of nations, the repair of the breach between animals and humans, good will, peace, joy to the world - such are the happy implications.
But like other images that we simply inherit, the creche challenges us, rather than consoles us, when we see it from a different angle. What are we looking at? This family is utterly dispossessed. If Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are at home with animals, that is because society has expelled them. The Holy Family are refugees.
The details in the gospels of Matthew and Luke that give us this scene quite explicitly mark the Nativity narrative as wartime literature. Recall: Joseph has brought his pregnant wife to Bethlehem because "in those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken" (Luke 2:1). The census, essential to an enslaving tax system, was the Roman equivalent of the knock on the door in the night, a ruthless dictatorship keeping its heel on the throat of peasants.
With the emperor's order as the inciting incident of Luke's gospel, the Christ child is explicitly come to overthrow Augustus; in Matthew, baby Jesus is Herod's mortal enemy. Political revolt sets the entire story in motion.
Scholars tell us that Jesus was indeed born at a time of rebellion in Judea and Galilee, with many Jewish communities smashed by the Romans, and thousands of Jews hung on crosses. The Nativity story would have been heard then, by Romans and Judeans alike, as dangerously subversive. Any child about whom such a tale was told would indeed have been fugitive.
Perhaps even more to the point, in the period when the anti-Roman narratives of the birth of Jesus were actually composed by "Luke" and "Matthew," eight or nine decades later, the Roman war against the Jewish people had come to its first boiling point, the destruction of the Temple in 70, and would soon come to its second, with the obliteration of Jerusalem in 135. Ancient historians say that somewhere between one million and two million Jews were killed in those wars, which ended with the dispersal of Jews - an entire people made refugees.
To read the Nativity story without reference to what the Romans called the Jewish wars is like reading Anne Frank without reference to the Holocaust, or the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" without reference to the Civil War. A slight shift in focus as we gaze upon the creche, leaving mellow nostalgia aside, reveals its most important meaning.
In this image at the heart of Western culture is the glorification not of power, but of power's victim. Regardless of any doctrinal claims, the Christmas story asserts an absolute moral standard that rebukes the conscience not only of the Roman Empire, but of all institutions - America included - that define the good in terms of dominance.
The creche is a precious icon for obvious reasons. But here is the subliminal current that has made it perennial: an image of people living outside, in tents perhaps; of people throwing off the boot of power; of people turning dispossession into demand. End the war against the poor. Occupy the manger? He did.