I am not known to be a great sentimentalist about Christmas. There is one “carol” that I do like to play this time every year, however, which is a based on a poem by John Pole about a homeless newborn child, called “Anti-Carol.” The best-known version of this was recorded acapella in a strong Cockney accent by British folksinger Frankie Armstrong in 1973 and re-recorded in 2008 (this is the version linked below).
When I first heard this song back in the 1970s, I had no inkling that it would still be prophetic in 2020. This song/poem has a tough message about the realities of poverty and political oppression. The poor expectant couple are first introduced (complete lyrics here):
Cold comfort they got
Was there a room? There was not
The town was crowded for a start
And it was cold, cold, cold, cold
Cold as a beggar boy’s heart
And then the twist, because this same story happens every day all over the world (the city list has evolved over time):
It could have been in Jo’burg, Detroit. Kabul, Calcutta
So long since it happened
I’m wrong! It happened yesterday
It happens now more and more…
The song ends by asking how this homeless child will grow up:
Will he bring peace or a gun?
Whenever his kingdom does come
It will belong to the poor, poor, poor, poor.
The homeless and poor.
The political roots of the Christmas story
If this carol disturbs you because it is overtly political, it may be of news that the original birth stories we play out at Christmas had strong political intentions. Religious doctrine was being framed in the two gospel variants of this original Nativity play against an oppressive and existence-threatening State at the time of the stories’ appearance in written form in the late first century.
I have noted before that there have been two primary ties of politics to religion in the U.S. in the last few decades. The political struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and even active today has been closely tied to the Black church. Leaders and parishioners declared boldly to the powers of State that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal citizenship rights for Black Americans after the Civil War was an open lie. Ironically, when the white evangelical church aligned itself with Donald Trump five years ago, it was in large part resurrecting the demand for white supremacy that they felt they had lost because of those same civil rights movements, via a religious doctrine called Dominionism. As they like to say on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other.
Out of the four canonical gospels written in the decades after the State execution of Jesus, two do not even mention his birth. The earliest of the four, attributed to Mark, is also the shortest, and it starts 30 years in, when Jesus just “shows up” as a disciple, then successor to the iconoclastic John the Baptizer. Jesus is the most “human” in this gospel, and the author apparently found nothing extraordinary enough in his birth story to record it.
The much-later-arriving gospel attributed to John begins with a long commentary about how Jesus is the incarnation of the Greek Logos (“the Word”), a mysterious life-force present from the beginning of time. Thus, no birth story was necessary. Although Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenized Jew, tried to harmonize the idea of Logos to the Hebrew Torah a generation before Jesus, the concept can be traced back 500 years earlier in Greek history to Heraclitus. Everybody in Paul’s budding Christian church knew what Logos meant when John’s gospel first appeared. decades after Jesus was gone.
The birth stories are found only in the gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke. However, these two narrators hold very few details in common, even though they are routinely mashed together in children’s Christmas pageants everywhere today. Each holds a different political “jab” at the civil and religious authorities controlling the land of Israel (perhaps more at the time of their writing than at “Year Zero”) as well as the surrounding “Hellenist” (Greek culture) lands where Paul’s church plantings were more fruitful than in Jerusalem, and which gave names to his Epistles.
Luke promises the return of the “Good King” (as opposed to the one that they had)
The Christmas Eve account from Luke is the more familiar of the two, although it is just a short twenty verses long. Luke’s birth story, as well as much of the rest of the gospel, is replete with references to the great and fabled King David, who had lived over 1000 years before. In Luke’s telling, the birth takes place in “David’s city” of Bethlehem, even though the parents were from a different town (Nazareth). The gospel takes pains to note that Joseph, Mary’s yet-to-be-husband, was a descendant of David, even to the point of later describing a complete genealogy. Luke oddly waffles a bit here, saying, “so it was thought” that Joseph was the father of Jesus.
In the view many scholars, the central theme of Luke’s entire gospel is to contrast the rule of a “Good King” (the expected return of Jesus the Messiah) to the “Herod line” of Jerusalem rulers who were just local tyrant “client-kings” of the conquering Caesars from Rome. Luke ends his gospel with a resurrected Jesus promising his followers that he will come back to bring them the promised “Kingdom of God” to supplant Rome’s repressive rule.
To readers of Luke’s gospel, I suggest Christmas was not a warm, fuzzy time of cheer and presents, but rather “the beginning of the end” of oppressive rule from Rome and the local pseudo-kings.
Matthew resurrects Moses
The gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, frequently references the great lawgiver Moses, from 1500 years earlier, as the model for Jesus. The best example of this is Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 through 7), where Jesus’ “new law” of love is contrasted to the harsher “old law” from Moses, which was enforced daily on the masses by the priests.
Matthew’s account of the Christmas story never mentions the manger scene but does introduce the traveling Magi who were not in Luke’s account, never saying that there were three. The Magi story, with King Herod purportedly killing all of the young boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to get rid of Jesus, is reminiscent of the avenging angel killing Egyptian boys during Passover at the time of Moses. And in a reverse of the Exodus story, Joseph flees with Mary and Jesus into Egypt for safety.
Although we do not present it this way, the astrological prediction of the Magi was instrumental to this horrible “massacre of the innocents” by King Herod (although there is no other evidence that this event actually occurred). It is one of the most unnerving parts of the Christmas story that we conveniently gloss over.
In the time of Jesus and on through to the destruction of the Temple in CE 70, the harsh religious Mosaic Law compounded the equally harsh civil law imposed by Rome for the populace. The emergence of Matthew’s gospel boldly asserted that there was “a new sheriff in town” named Jesus, bringing very a different kind of law that valued the poor over the rich, and the powerless over the powerful. If you had any political or religious weight in first century Jerusalem and surrounding lands, you likely found this message a threat to your job and political power.
One of the few times public shame at unbridled political power against the poor and homeless has come through in recent years is when we saw young babies separated from their refugee parents and kept in cages at the border by order of a U.S president. A few brave churches have crossed that political line again to put out Christmas Nativity scenes on their lawns with the Baby Jesus in a cage. Needless to say, these are not any of Donald Trump’s loyalist churches.
I have many church friends who think very different politically from me. We usually get along fine in an environment that is sheltered from requiring any of us to pledge fealty to a political leader. In many places that line has been crossed, and it will not be over on January 20, 2021.