If we take an honest look at the Biblical texts dealing with Christmas, we will find that they have precious little to do with sentimentality.
In the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we read of the visit of the Magi, astrologers from “the east.” They let it be known that they were in search of “the newborn king of the Jews,” whose star they had observed at its rising. When this news was spread about, was it met with delight, enthusiasm, excitement, and sentimental feelings? Hardly. Listen to what Matthew tells us: “When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Why would the arrival of a tiny baby, who would grow up to bear a message of love, have excited such negativity? We must remember that the child is described as a king, which means someone who comes to rule; more precisely, he is characterised as king of the Jews, and this was the very title that Herod claimed. Therefore, Herod, quite correctly, saw him as a threat to his prerogatives and position.
But why would the entire capital be in an uproar? We must recall what the Bible consistently says about cities, that is, the way we human beings typically organise ourselves politically, socially, and culturally. The trembling of all of Jerusalem at the birth of the baby king is a function of the demand that that king will eventually make, the change that his rule will affect.
If we examine Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, we find very similar motifs. Luke sets up his story as the tale of two rival Emperors: Caesar, the king of the world, and Jesus, the baby king. While Caesar rules from his palace in Rome, Jesus has no place to lay his head; while Caesar exercises power, Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes; while Caesar surrounds himself with wealthy and sophisticated courtiers, Jesus is surrounded by animals and shepherds of the field. And yet, the baby king is more powerful than Augustus – which is signaled by the presence of an army of angels in the skies over Bethlehem.
All four of the Gospels play out as a struggle, culminating in the deadly business of the cross, between the worldly powers and the power of Christ. For Jesus is not simply a kindly prophet with a gentle message of forgiveness; he is God coming in person to assume command. He is the Lord. And the entire New Testament couldn’t be clearer that his Lordship means that all those who follow a contrary rule – meaning, pretty much every one of us – are under judgment.
To be sure, the distinctive mark of Jesus’ Lordship is love, compassion, forgiveness, and non-violence – but this is not the stuff of sentimentality and warm feelings. It is a provocation, a challenge, a call to conversion of the most radical kind. – Bishop Robert Barron