Advent and Christmas.
These are the liturgical times of the year in which Christians place front and center the coming and arrival of Christ into the world. They also indicate the inauguration of a new era. When Mark begins his gospel with, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” he does so in contrast to another kind of “good news”, that of Caesar’s.
The res gestae is an inscription found within Ancrya on the mausoleum of Augustus. It is a work of Roman propaganda that detailed the accomplishments of Caesar within the world. It remarks of land conquests, economic provisions, glorious luxury and universal peace; all brought to the world by Caesar. It presents a gloomy world that has now seen hope and prosperity in the divine success of Caesar. In fact, it was another inscription, called the Priene inscription (found in Asia Minor), that called Caesar's birth "good news to the world."
It is not hard to imagine the kind of derision Jesus’ own advent causes for empire. Jesus’ life, ministry and following is a mockery to Caesar's and was an act of social-political-religious rebellion against the empire. For every time a Roman citizen in the streets would say to one another “Caesar is Lord", there were Jesus' people: a poor and marginalized collective who's proclamation was that their true lord and king would inaugurate a new era and new kingdom where the last were first and the first were last.
Apropos this inauguration of Christ's "good news" against Caesar's, we find ourselves today facing our own inaugural event of empire: the presidency of Donald Trump. Almost comically this contrast can be most easily seen not even a day after Christmas—the celebration of Jesus as [Emmanuel] "god with us”—Trump tweets this:
Is Trump not doing exactly what Caesar had done for the Roman empire? Trump often uses this sudo-religious rhetoric in order to set himself up as a kind of messiah ideologue. He envisions himself--like Caesar--as a kind of savior who brings luxury, economic prosperity, and [to use his own words] hope. Of course, what we learn from things like the res gestae, is that self-declarative congratulatory boastings are likely far from facts and reality. The res gestae tends to gloss over events and facts that do not contribute to building up the image of Caesar. This is in fact what made the "good news" of Jesus so dangerous for Caesar's empire: it removed the ideological veil.
Does not the advent of Christ still operate as derision and subversion for today’s empires? How can the Church reconnect to the political message of Jesus' "good news" for the world? How do we embody that ministry of Christ in the face of Trump's empire for the next four years? What practical steps can we take in 2017 to fight for the marginalized? I don't have answers right now so much as I have encouragement.
There’s this saying, “a little yeast makes the whole batch of dough rise!”
It’s an idea within Jewish wisdom teaching that has been used in both the positive and the negative, to affirm and critique. It’s been used by Jesus, Paul, and prophets before them both. I kind of love it. Not just because it has to do with food (a little bit of that) but for how simple and true the statement is. Most powerfully, when it is used in Matthew 13:3, Jesus is speaking of how the kingdom of god will come about.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
As we fast approach 2017 and anticipate the [unfortunate] inauguration of a new era under Trump, there is a lot at stake for the church to consider and we might easily become overwhelmed by how daunting the struggle for progressive Christianity will be. Yet, despite how powerful empire always feels, what we learn from some of the earliest forms of Christianity is that there is power in the movement. We can make a difference. We decide the future of this planet and these people. You--yes, even you--are crucial components for building the kingdom of god Christ envisioned. Now is the time for all of our people to get involved. To organize, to plan, to advocate. To preach with our hands and pray with our feet. Whatever it takes. Because
it only takes a little bit of yeast to make a whole batch of dough rise!
For further reading...
Christ and the Caesars by Ethelbert Stauffer
Roman Emperor Worship by Louis Matthews Sweet
Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism (see pg. 76-80)