Long ago, the story goes, Magi gazed into the skies and were convinced of what they read there: a new king had been born to the Jews. So, they went on pilgrimage to find and worship him. They traveled first to the holy royal city of Jerusalem, of course. Powerful babies are born into powerful families. Kings are born of kings. This is the way of things—or at least, the human way.
King Herod was suspicious. His heir had not recently been born, so what could this sign foretell? Not the increase of his power and wealth, that was clear enough. Herod was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him; when a tyrant feels his power threatened, everyone suffers. Privilege does not let go without a fight.
Meanwhile, in another part of town—in fact, far outside of town, in the fields surrounding the town of Bethlehem—the sky burst not with stars but with…angels. Angels, delivering a royal birth announcement direct from the throne of God. This royal proclamation was addressed not to the king or the emperor, but shepherds in the field, watching their flock at night. The angels announced good news to the people and peace to the earth, for the long-awaited Messiah was born that very night in the city of Bethlehem. Powerful babies are born into powerful families, and kings are born of kings—but God, apparently, has a different way.
So they ran. The shepherds ran to see Mary and Joseph and the baby, wrapped in a manger as the angels had said. After they found the infant, they hurried again to spread the word. How could they keep a story like this to themselves? They had just seen angels. They had met the newborn king. Can you imagine the middle-of-the-night ruckus these smelly young men made, running jubilantly through town?
This is a night of contrasts: powerful rulers disturbed and suspicious, afraid of losing their place of wealth and command. Poor, hardworking villagers, whooping with excitement. Pay attention here, for this contrast is not a minor detail—it is the central point. From the prophets, to Mary’s Magnificat, to Zechariah’s prophecy, to Simeon’s blessing, to Jesus’ declaration at the synagogue at the start of his ministry, everyone understood that the long-awaited Messiah would bring revolution, good news for the poor and oppressed, upheaval for the unjust, the wealthy, and the powerful.
As Mary sang in her pre-natal song:
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:46-55).
No wonder King Herod was disturbed.
GOOD NEWS FOR THE POOR AND THE OPPRESSED
After all this hubbub died down, Mary and Joseph took their newborn Messiah to the temple in Jerusalem, the holy, royal city, for the traditional rites. Every reader of Luke’s account would know that per Levitical law, the required offering was two male lambs and an ewe lamb, plus high-quality flour and oil. For those who could not afford such an expense, accommodations could be made. The lowest level of accommodation for the poorest temple-goers was precisely what Luke tells us Mary and Joseph brought: two doves or pigeons.
Such poetic justice! Luke couldn’t have made up a more compelling juxtaposition. When the newborn Messiah-king entered the holy, royal city where Magi from afar had traveled to worship him—and where the current king and rulers sought to kill him—his parents arrived from the countryside with an offering that indicated their extreme poverty. God’s king was born not only outside the palace, royal line, and royal city, but into a family too poor to afford even the traditional offering.
But then again, this is a story of contrasts. Where else would a revolution begin?
As they wrote their accounts of Jesus’ birth, both Matthew and Luke hid clues, Easter eggs of meaning, that their readers would understand. We overlook these themes today, partially because we lack the cultural understanding to recognize (for example) what a birth-offering of pigeons or turtle doves meant. When our ears are tuned to the cultural realities, we see that these hints are in fact strong, bold statements declaring that the gospel, the coming of Jesus the Messiah, is good news for the poor and oppressed.
But also, we overlook these themes because it is advantageous for us to do so. Even in our hard-working middle-class stations, we are among the most wealthy and powerful people on earth. We are not the ones likely to benefit from God’s revolution.
The Magi traveling from the east looked for the new king among the wealthy and powerful, but God was doing his redemptive work in a family too poor to afford a birth offering. We still make this mistake today, looking for God’s work among the wealthy and powerful in society, placing our hope in their influence, platform, and popularity to bring about the Kingdom, God’s will on earth.
But when has this ever been the place God’s will was done? What if God is still primarily at work among the powerless and oppressed in our neighborhoods and societies? What if his redemption story is moving forward without us, because we avoid the people and places where he is on the move? Worse still what if, like King Herod, in our love of power, wealth, and privilege we the ones standing in the way?
WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?
The Magi did eventually find the newborn king. Not in the palace, not in the royal city at all—simply at home with his mother. Herod’s priests searched the scriptures, tipping them off that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. And then, the star led their way.
When he realized the Magi had outwitted him, King Herod was furious. To retain his power and position he did what those in power have done since the dawn of time. Better to kill than be killed, better to destroy than to lose position. Herod decreed that all young boys in the region be slaughtered, least they grow up to usurp his place. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled their homeland for Egypt, as refugees.
But back at the temple with their pigeons or doves, a righteous man named Simeon held the baby Jesus and prophesied that through him “the thoughts of many will be revealed.” We see clearly what this baby revealed in King Herod’s heart. But what does he reveal in our hearts? Are we willing to hear the good news in Simeon’s words, in Mary’s Magnificat, in Jesus’ declaration? When the powerful are brought low and the poor lifted up, will we rejoice? Are we working on the side of the Kingdom?
We like to say that Jesus was born to die, but this phrase is nowhere in the gospels. Yes, God’s plan includes the death and resurrection of Jesus, but the gospel writers—like the prophets before them—declared that Jesus was born to bring down the proud and powerful and to lift up the poor and oppressed. To declare the year of Lord, to bring redemption and justice to all creation.
If we join Jesus’ followers in a Kingdom like this—where the poor are lifted up while the rich go away empty—it might just change where we live, where we worship, where we spend our money, where we spend our time. This Advent, where will you look for the Messiah? And when you find him, what will he reveal in your heart?
This article originally appeared here.
Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash
The Lord is revealing many things I did not want to see this advent. In a way it is bringing a freedom to fully celebrate in simplicity in a way I never have before Thank you foe this confirmation to rest in the upheaval of the ordinary this advent