From “The Rebel Jesus,” by Jackson Browne
We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” (Lk 2:1, KJV)
The story of Christmas starts with caesar, for it is this decree that sends a young couple journeying back to Bethlehem, an inn, and a manger.
Specifically, it starts with the first true caesar, Augustus, who transformed the last vestiges of the Roman republic into the empire. And so the birth of a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes is juxtaposed against the birth of the most powerful state (and the most powerful ruler) yet seen in history.
Today, of course, we juxtapose the image of a baby gentle, meek, and mild against the crush of commerce and protestations of power from high office.
An odd pairing, to be sure — but the image of a baby is no doubt less threatening to everything that’s sprung up around the holiday than would be the image of what the baby would become: a rebel with an agenda so radical we’re still trying to make sense of it 2,000 years later.
“The church is not a reasonable idea,” writes Brian Doyle. “We forget this.”
Indeed we do. And yet it is perfectly reasonable to drive our SUVs to church to hear the old just-so stories told again before commencing 24 hours of glorious excess.
In its own weird way, that is a reasonable idea — and certainly an enjoyable and treasured one. But even as we render unto caesar (or to commerce) what is theirs, it is worth pausing to ask the unreasonable, rebellious questions.
After all, should it be completely unreasonable to expect slightly better answers after all those years?
But pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus.