Greetings Blessed Community, and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you!
I’m sharing a short message today that is not strictly traditional in the Christian sense, but it is based on the history of the times in which Jesus of Nazareth was born. This message doesn’t go into the miraculous occurrences like the Virgin Birth recorded in Christian Scripture, but I believe it is in keeping with the Christmas Spirit of Hope, Peace, and Love nonetheless. Since this message is based on history as reported by Roman historians of the times and others, I think this it can be well received by people of any faith, including Christians, as well as people of no faith. I will warn that the history of the times in which Jesus was born were somewhat brutal. The brutality will be mentioned, but not portrayed graphically in any way. Anyway, have a little faith and allow me to be your guide for the next 20 minutes or so.
The Christian holiday known as Christmas is centered on a person named Jesus, who is believed to have lived over 2000 years ago in what is now modern-day Israel. Jesus was a common name back then, based on the name Joshua, who a Jewish prophet who lived over 1200 years before Jesus.
A lot has been written about the historical reality of the person Jesus. Some scholars deny his existence, but I think most acknowledge the likelihood that he did exist, even if they doubt the miraculous occurrences surrounding his life.
Christmas, of course, acknowledges the birth of the person known as Jesus of Nazareth, and in so doing also acknowledges the existence of his mother, who was named Mary. Historians would probably agree that if Jesus existed, his mother existed also. On a side note, for those who are aware of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions regarding the creation of humanity, isn’t it interesting how those narratives insists that women were somehow derived from men? I was just reading from the Hindu Upanishads and saw a similar narrative saying that women were sourced from men. In a way, Christmas affirms the fact that men, even men who are described as having Divine attributes, are born from women.
But anyway, back to the main story, the biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth includes several events that were also independently recorded by Roman historians during that time period. These other historical events include the reign of Augustus Caesar in Rome, the death of Herod the Great, and a census imposed on the Judean region by the Roman governor Quirinius. While Christian scripture describes the census as happening first followed by the death of Herod, Roman historians said that Herod died 4 years before the beginning of the Common Era and the census occurred 6 years after the beginning of the Common Era. This puts a 10 year question mark on the historical date and circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus.
Another event that has been reported by Roman historians was a revolt in protest to the census led by a man named Judas of Galilee. This revolt was also mentioned by Luke in the Christian Bible in Acts 5:37. After overcoming the revolt with overwhelming force, the occupying Roman forces crucified some 2000 people who participated in the revolt.
A revolt that was put down violently followed by a mass crucifixion killing thousands of people would have been big news in a small region like Galilee. Based on town sizes and population distributions of the time, some estimates placed the population of the region well under 200,000. The deaths of perhaps 2 percent of the entire population, or perhaps 4 percent of the males in the population would have been felt heavily by the region. And the deaths would have been felt heavily by the families that lost brothers, husbands, and fathers. Jesus may have been 10 years old during the revolt, which may explain why it was not recorded in the birth narrative of Jesus.
A mystery that is often discussed based on the birth narrative is, what happened to Joseph the husband of Jesus’s mother Mary? After the birth narrative, he seems to disappear. Some have speculated that Joseph lost his life during the rebellion, either to the battle or the mass crucifixion. Given the size of the region, which is about the same size as San Jose California, and the population, it is definitely possible that the husband of Jesus’s mother participated in and died as part of that rebellion. It is also possible that Jesus’ friends from the region may have lost fathers to the rebellion and mass Crucifixion as well. His friends James and John were also known as the “Sons of Thunder.” It is possible that “Thunder” was a covert name their father used while participating in the rebellion.
What do towns and regions and people and families do with that kind of trauma? For some, including the children of Judas of Galilee and others, the traumatic memory inspires and provoked more rebellion, and more violence. The Roman historian Josephus said in Antiquities 20 Chapter 5 that about 40 years later, Judas’s sons James and Simon were captured and crucified for continuing violence and rebellion. And some 70 years after the birth of Jesus, the Romans completely destroyed Jerusalem and killed all her inhabitants.
While some used the trauma to fuel ongoing violence, what about a young mother and child who suffered such traumatic loss? A mother’s instinct would be to love and protect that child from such a trauma recurring. Remember the reaction that mothers in particular had to the Vietnam war? Moms who lost children and husbands recognized the futility of war, and stood up for peace and an ending of hostilities. It may well be that Jesus’s mother also recognized the futility of violence and conflict and decided that love would be a better and safer course for the life of her young child. It is possible that Jesus’s mother taught him that love is the right path to follow, rather than violence.
Growing up, Jesus’s education would have included stories of empires rising up and conquering each other. These empires included the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians under Alexander the Great, and finally the Romans. The history he learned would have included his own people portrayed as conquerors, taking the land from the resident Canaanites of the region.
He would have also learned that every conquest resulted in death, misery, slavery, and displacement. By the time the Romans came around, the history of conquest and suffering was ingrained in the minds and hearts of the Jewish people.
While many of the conquering cultures had disappeared, Jesus’s own Jewish culture and faith remained steadfast through all the suffering and death and displacement. He would have learned that the loving kindness that the God of the Jewish people had for them, and the love that they had for each other, held them together through the worst of traumatic times. He also would have learned that the earliest stories from his tradition said that his own Jewish heritage was meant to be a blessing to all nations, inspiring peace and love among all people.
With the urging and teaching of his mother, and the lessons of his education and faith, it is possible that Jesus was raised to recognize both the futility of violence, and the power of love. It is possible that the teachings shared during his life regarding love of neighbors, strangers, and enemies alike were inspired by the events of his birth, the love and teachings of his mother, and his history and heritage.
Historically, great messengers don’t just rise up out of nowhere and nothing. Great messengers become great because they give voice to sentiments that many people carry in their hearts. Expressed theologically, God inspires great messengers to give voice to the suffering of people. The time in which Jesus lived wasn’t the only time when people were faced with mass killings, oppression, and violence.
I mentioned the mothers during the Vietnam era who rose up and said “enough,” not only to the war but also to the oppression of women and LGBTQ people. Consider also the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. whose voice said “enough” to not only war, but also to oppression and violence against people of color. Just as Gandhi’s voice in India and Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela’s voices in South Africa said enough as well. And just as the Dalai Lama’s voice continues to say “Enough” as the people and culture of Tibet suffer under decades of oppression and exile. All these voices say enough is enough, and rather than meeting violence and hatred with more of the same, choose the path of love.
Prophetic voices do not rise up in isolation, they give voice to the suffering of thousands and millions, they represent the voices of mothers and parents and people of all ages and races and cultures and sexual orientations as well.
Many of us often experience similar feelings today as well, in response to mass shootings, in response to never ending wars, in response to justice systems that do not treat all citizens equally, and in response to voices that lift up division and blame rather than peace and love. Enough is enough.
Jesus gave voice to a similar sentiment in Galilee. Enough is enough. Let the voice of love be heard. Let peace reign. Let the love a mother has for her children represent the voice of God, rather than a voice of fear, anger, and violence.
The stories of miracles that surround Jesus’s birth, life, death, and resurrection are often used to claim the Divinity of Jesus, and the truth and power of Jesus’s teachings. This Christmas message is not meant to dispute or argue any of the claims, narratives, stories, or miracles described in Jesus’s life. This Christmas message simply suggests that the special revelation Jesus brings the world with his birth, the message of hope and love and peace, also carries the strength of experience, of history, and of the love his mother nurtured, taught, and shared with him.
This Christmas season, let us embrace faith from the perspective that Jesus was born with, lived and taught, and died for – the perspective of love.
May the message of Christmas be preserved and always remain the same. May the lessons of experience, history and the love a mother holds for her children always be a guiding light.
Peace on earth and good will toward all.