This page includes an Excerpt from Chapter 15, “The Triumph of God Over the Powers” in Shaking the Gates of Hell: Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization by Sharon Delgado.
During Advent and Christmas, Christians around the world celebrate the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth in pageants and liturgies. Literalists insist that these stories must be taken as historical fact, especially the story of Jesus’ divine conception by the Holy Spirit and subsequent birth to a virgin. In other words, they believe that Jesus is the Son of God biologically. Some see the literal understanding of this story as a crucial test of faith.
Though Jesus used the intimate term Abba when addressing God, he never claimed the exclusive title “Son of God” for himself. He usually referred to himself as “the Son of man,” literally “the son of the man,” better translated as “the human being.” According to Walter Wink: ‘The son of the man’ is the expression Jesus almost exclusively used to describe himself. In Hebrew the phrase simply means ‘a human being.’ The implication seems to be that Jesus intentionally avoided honorific titles, and preferred to be known simply as “the man,” or “the human being.” Apparently he saw his task as helping people become more truly human.”
A literal belief that Jesus’ mother was a virgin is not crucial in understanding who Jesus was. What the birth stories symbolize, however, is the incarnation of the divine in human life. Matthew Fox expands the concept of incarnation to include all life: “God has become incarnate—made flesh—not just in the historical Jesus and certainly not just in the two-legged creatures but in all of us. All of us are incarnations—home and dwelling-places for the Divine—all people, the poor no less than the comfortable. All races, all religions, all sexes, all sexual orientations, and all beings—four-legged, the winged, the rock people and tree people and cloud peoples—all are dwelling places of the Divine.” God is present in matter, indwelling all creation.
According to Walter Wink, the question for us is: “Before he was worshiped as God incarnate, how did Jesus struggle to incarnate God?” We might also ask: What can Jesus show us about how human life can be lived fully and deeply in the light and presence of God?
The stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy are important because they shed light on how the Gospel writers understood the significance of Jesus. Some of these stories are overtly political, and provide compelling evidence that the authors understood the revolutionary significance of Jesus’ life.
According to the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born to a poor, young, unwed mother under extremely difficult circumstances. When Mary was well along in her pregnancy (so the story goes), the Roman Empire issued an edict forcing all Jews to register for the census in their own hometowns, so that they could be taxed and conscripted into the Roman Army. Mary and Joseph traveled a long distance from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown, where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable (Luke 2:1-7).
Mary and Joseph were poor. When they traveled to Jerusalem for their purification, to present their firstborn son to God, instead of offering the standard sacrifice they offered the poor peoples’ alternative: “a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:22-24). Mary and Joseph later fled with their infant son into Egypt as political refugees to escape King Herod’s genocidal attempts to hold onto his throne (Matt. 2:13-15).
During her pregnancy, Mary proclaimed the remarkable words of hope for the poor and oppressed that has come to be called the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-47, 51-53, based on Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10)):
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior . . .
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”
Mary’s words could hardly have been more political, or threatening to the Powers.
The stories of Baby Jesus have revolutionary significance that should not be watered down. For those of us who observe Advent and celebrate Christmas this year, let’s keep in mind that human individuals, cultures, economies, and governments need revolutionary transformation today more than ever. Faith gives us freedom to participate in that transformation. “Do not be conformed to this world (this world’s systems) but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” May you find freedom, joy, and transformation during this holy season.