In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus . . .
This is where the Christmas story in the gospel of Luke begins: with The Powers That Be. They do what TPTBs always do — they issue commands, decrees, and orders. They wave their arms, they sign their names, they affix their seals, and they send forth their minions to do their bidding and enforce their will.
[Joseph] went [to Bethlehem] to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because their was no room for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night . . .
That’s what ordinary folks do: they obey TPTBs and go about their ordinary lives. Babies are born, and sheep are watched carefully. While TPTBs have their palaces, their mansions, and their wealth, the ordinary folks have . . . less. Some live in the fields, while others seek temporary shelter in barns and stables.
This contrast is, for me, what lies at the heart of Christmas. It is at the heart of the story of Jesus, who spent his life pointing out this contrast and also pointing out the ways in which this is not the way people were meant to live. On the one hand, he healed the sick, fed the hungry, welcomed outcasts, comforted the grieving, and embraced the stranger and foreigner, and on the other hand he challenged TPTBs, both civil and religious. In his parables and his way of life, he gave the world a vision of life-giving partnerships — with God, with each other, and with all of creation — that overturns the self-centered, death-dealing ways of TPTBs.
Popular culture’s vision of Christmas generally misses the challenging nature of the story of Christmas. It’s much nicer and safer to sing simple platitudes of peace on earth before turning to the celebration of acquiring more and more stuff and seeking a higher spot on the pyramid of power. But from time to time, there are glimpses of Christmas that challenge the passions in our society to make distinctions between people, to judge one’s worth by the size of one’s pile of stuff, and to raise up the rich at the expense of the poor.
Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland of The West Wing got it right, with the award-winning episode entitled “In Excelsis Deo” that first appeared on December 15, 1999. In one of the story lines, Toby Ziegler, the White House Communications Director, used the president’s name without permission to pull some strings for a project of his own. You can watch the YouTube of last 4:43 of the episode here which includes this exchange between Toby and the president as Toby is summoned to President Bartlet’s presence for a dressing down:
- Bartlet: Hi.
- Toby: Yes sir.
- Bartlet: How’re you doing?
- Toby: I’m fine. Thank you sir.
- Bartlet: Apparently, I’ve arranged for an honor guard for somebody.
- Toby: Yes, sir. I’m sorry.
- Bartlet: No no. Just tell me, is there anything else I’ve arranged for? We’re still in NATO right?
- Toby: Yes, sir.
- Bartlet: What’s going on?
- Toby: A homeless man died last night; a Korean War veteran, who was wearing a coat that I gave to the Goodwill. It had my card in it.
- Bartlet: Toby, you’re not responsible for …
- Toby: An hour and twenty minutes for the ambulance to get there. A Lance Corporal, United States Marine Corps, Second of the Seventh. The guy got better treatment at Panmunjom.
- Bartlet: Toby, if we start pulling strings like this, you don’t think every homeless veteran would come out of the woodwork?
- Toby: I can only hope, sir.
The powerful nature of the end of this episode comes not from the words exchanged by the characters, but from the non-verbal acting, the editing, and the directing. The last 2:15 has no spoken dialogue at all, but alternates between scenes of the White House holiday festivities and the burial at Arlington National Cemetery. It cuts back and forth from the lines of singers in the White House to the lines of Marines at Arlington, from the row of mourners at the grave to the row of staffers at the White House. Over it all, we hear (and occasionally see) a children’s choir singing “Little Drummer Boy,” not to honor TPTBs, whether in the Bartlet White House or in ancient Rome, but to honor that baby in the ancient stable and the vision of life-giving partnerships that he proclaimed.
One of the names ascribed to Jesus is “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.” Whether Sorkin and Cleveland intended this or not, I don’t know, but I am always struck by the final spoken words of this episode. They echo the sense of God’s partnership and companionship with the world, embodied in the birth in a stable that is at the heart of Christmas. The words are spoken by the President’s secretary, Delores Landingham: “Toby, I’d like to come along.”
I’d like to come along.
For Christians, that’s essentially what God said to the world at Christmas. For others, the story of Christmas may simply be a nice fable. Whether we share a common understanding of this story or not, I pray that we can share a vision of a mutual partnership that raises up the lowly, that feeds the hungry, that embraces the stranger, that welcomes the outcast, and that works for peace.
Glory to God in the highest, indeed.