“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Lk 2:1). St. Luke’s account of Christ’s Nativity begins with the appearance of Imperial power for good reason. Besides being the story of a King’s birth, Christmas is also the story of the effects of that birth: of the old order that this King upsets, and of the people – and the rulers – to whom He comes. From the Magi’s gifts to Herod’s heinous infanticide, the Gospel reveals, in advance, the double-edge sword that the Prince of Peace must bring, the permanent tension that God’s arrival in the world creates.
This theme of the Christmas story is perhaps the hardest for us to appreciate today, because we think the age of kings is over. The world’s current monarchs seem like the living equivalents of well-preserved buildings: quaint and interesting anachronisms, not worth razing nor restoring. After all, hasn’t popular sovereignty replaced the sovereigns of old? Do we not living in the golden age of democracy and the rule of law?
In point of fact, we do not – and the Christmas story reveals as much. For what ermine-robed monarch ever ruled as imperiously as the unelected judges of our Supreme Court? A thousand years ago, the pious Danish King, Canute the Great, had the sea symbolically flogged for not obeying his commands in order to teach his flattering courtiers the limits of his power. However, there is much less hubris in his vain degrees to the rising tides than in our own rulers’ redefinitions of life’s beginning, the nature of marriage, or so-called “death with dignity.”
Of such disordered rule, Herod is the perfect (and permanent) model. Like the doomed protagonist of a Greek tragedy, he desperately strives to outwit with the prophecy of the king’s foretold coming with a brutality that shocked his pagan contemporaries. The impious paranoia that prompts the futile slaughter of his own subjects is a figure for our epidemic of prenatal infanticide. Instead of seeing new life as God’s most provocative, powerful, and direct blessing, we, like Herod, see children as an existential threat to our comfort. The Creator commanded us to “Go forth and multiply,” but we have, instead, decided to stay put satisfied, resorting even to murder to protect our unimpeded pursuit of pleasure.
The Magi have a quite different response God’s advent into history. Without the assistance of the very prophecies and oracles that prompt Herod’s massacre, these monarchs of the orient intuit Christ’s coming in signs from the stars themselves. Free from the tyrannical insecurity of Israel’s royal butcher, these kings cross deserts to pay homage to their own King.
But why is the example of the Magi important for us today? And how do they offer a model to our own rulers? It is not because God has special regard for those vested in the little brief authority which ultimately comes from Him. Indeed, before God, the filth of shepherds and the pomp of the high-born differ only in degree, which is why God’s angels, in their glory, serve summons to lowest social caste at Christ’s birth. The angelic host makes, for the Divine Messiah, a court of outcasts, mingling, with the earnest prayers of these humble rustics, their glorious Hosannahs. Rather, the Good Shepherd takes pity on His sheep, and blesses the secular and religious leaders that He tasks with their protection in this world. The pious king draws strength from the King; like Melchizedek, the holy priest-king of Salaam, the just ruler bestows, on his subjects, what comes from God Himself: order, justice, peace.
So the age of kings has not yet ended; an elected ruler, no less than an anointed prince, still depends on the grace of God for the good administration of the state. One sportscaster, weighing in on the recent American election, put the point well: “I never know from one election to the next who’s going to be in the Oval Office, but I always know who’s on the throne.” A bad ruler will not benefit from traditions of good government nor will balances and checks limit his pride. A just ruler, on the other hand, sets the entire nation’s moral tone: he can awaken the conscience of his fellow citizens, respond to God’s holy inspirations, and be the conduit through which a great many blessings can come.
The world dies for leaders like this and, with great hope and trust, we make a prayer for such leaders in our own time, for Christmas gives us this audacity. Mark Steyn recently noted that Simone Weil, the French philosopher, was always impressed with “the fact that in the British system ‘power is vested in one who is all but powerless,” and that it was England, “alone among the European powers” which “had maintained ‘a centuries-old tradition of liberty guaranteed by the authorities.’” The English monarch, in a certain sense, is an image of the God born in Bethlehem: omnipotent in His lowly manger, the Divine Word, rests silently and helpless in His mother’s arms.
So should our own good shepherds limit themselves, and repose on the Lord in these unsettled times; and we should, likewise, pray unceasingly for their guidance, discernment, and support. At Christmas, such prayers are especially auspicious, beseeching, as we do, to the new-born King of kings: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6).
We at The Interim wish you and your families a joyful, safe, and holy Christmas and all the blessings of the New Year.