Amidst Political Chaos — O Holy Night
As we celebrate Christmas in a nation still churning with recent political and cultural turmoil, we feel pretty uneasy. It has been a very tough year and a half. People are divided. Families are at odds. Strong passions of both dismay and hope swirl around us.
If it seems hard for you to switch your thoughts over to a quiet and peaceful Bethlehem, a silent night, a bucolic scene of shepherds, visiting Magi and a mother and infant, a holy child sleeping in heavenly peace — you are not alone.
But was it really that calm and bright? Was Bethlehem, the city of David, an oasis of sweet rest that night?
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining …”
We need to look at history to understand what it may have been like to live then.
Let’s start with Herod “The Great,” king of Judea and vassal to the Romans, in power over thirty years when Jesus was born. His tyrannical rule, along with exhorbitant taxation to pay for his grandiose building projects, compounded by his introduction of pagan entertainment and idolatrous emblems to the Temple grounds, infuriated many of the devout Jews. Hugely ambitious and fearful of insurrections (which were always brewing against him) he had a personal bodyguard of over 2000 men and brutally quashed all real and imagined threats to his power. We remember his barbaric slaughter of the infants of that same peaceful town Bethlehem (after Joseph, Mary and Jesus were warned and fled) upon learning from the Magi that the Messiah, the King of the Jews, was born there.
It was not just the gloom that hung over Judea and Bethlehem that was broken. The gloom that may hang over some of us was also broken.
The Jewish culture and religion were in turmoil. The priests were in constant near-revolt against Herod and the Romans. Zealots had smashed the Roman emblems Herod had placed at the entrance to the Temple of Jerusalem. With the blessing of Caesar Augustus, Herod executed his own son Antipater who was accused of planning to murder him, probably the same year Jesus was born. A few months later Herod the Great died. The Jews revolted and the Roman governor of Syria marched three legions down to Jerusalem to restore order. Several thousand Jews were crucified.
The Romans were not much better than Herod. Caesar Augustus had made Judea a Roman province and it had to surrender the relative independence it had experienced for over a hundred years prior. Then they started a series of censuses, a registration system setting up Roman taxation and exerting even more control over the population. The Zealots and others saw it as a menace to national and personal liberty. There were many revolts.
To understand how bad it was, these same tensions simmering that holy night would come to a full boil fifty years later and lead to open rebellion against Rome and the final destruction of the Temple, the priesthood and the Ark of the Covenant. The Jewish nation would be dispersed to the four corners of the world.
The atmosphere surrounding the “Little Town of Bethlehem” was still laden with fear of tyranny, loss of freedom and uncertainty about what lay ahead.
“A thrill of hope — the weary world rejoices …”
Against that gloomy backdrop, the holy night came:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. (Galatians 4:4-5)
Realize this: The gloom was broken that night. The chorus of angels, keenly interested in the progress of God’s redemption, did split the heavy air. The amazed scholars from ancient Babylon and Persia did find the promised Messiah they had read about. And this did happen:
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:10-14)
“For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn …”
It was not just the gloom that hung over Judea and Bethlehem that was broken. The gloom that may hang over some of us was also broken. And the hope of that holy night continually breaks our gloom, especially when viewed together with the joy of the bright morning over thirty years later when the stone was rolled away from the tomb. And it breaks it again at the dawn of every new day experienced by those who have experienced the second birth.
It was not a perfect time when God sent His Son. But it was the fullness of time. It was the right time.
And the angels were exultant.
Our time may not seem like a perfect time. It is undoubtedly a harder time for us than in many previous years. But it is the time that God has placed you and me here where we are. For us, it is the right time.
No matter the politics or the cultural currents, we have hope for our families, our communities and our culture. That hope is not dependent upon any person or any party. It is based on the promises given — and fulfilled — on that holy night.
Enjoy this beautiful rendition of the carol: “O Holy Night,” sung by Susan Boyle.