St. Luke was very much a Roman citizen and knew that the ultimate competition for Jesus was the emperor. He had lived through the reigns of several emperors and realized that the first – Augustus – was the most formidable, and so he begins the story of the birth of Jesus with him. We are meant to make comparisons.
The emperor was born Octavian in 63 BC. He came from a solid family but was not of the highest nobility. He was however the adopted son of Julius Caesar and demonstrated such military and political skill after his death that he became the most powerful man in Rome. He also understood how to use symbols and what we would now call public relations.
He arose at a time when Rome had been fighting within itself for a century. The people wanted peace but not at any cost. They were proud citizens of a republic and wanted to keep it. Even after Augustus had obtained supreme military power, he did not immediately claim the title emperor but made a great show of asking permission of civil leaders. He also had more money than the state itself and was able to finance roads and other infrastructure needed by the common people. He created the “Pax Romana” – the peace of Rome which with only one real exception kept Rome safe for almost 500 years. It was a peace however, that was based on brute force and terror. That crucifixion became a widespread practice showed exactly how power was maintained.
Yet for his actions, he was called the savior and the prince of peace. When he spoke to the people it called the “good news” – the Gospel – and if he visited a city, he would be preceded by an impressively dressed army which would prepare his way. It was no wonder that upon his death he was declared a God.
This is power as we usually define it, but Luke uses royal and divine terminology for Jesus, and asks us to compare.
Augustus rules from his palace; we meet Jesus in a stable. His parents had to move from their comfortable home in Nazareth because of the order of this very emperor. Rome was the seat of empire and center of history; Bethlehem, a tiny village in which David, an ancient Jewish king whose line had died out centuries before, was born. The emperor had his court of nobles and officials; Jesus had shepherds and other people from the lowest orders of society. They are told that Jesus is a Savior, but from what could he deliver them? Could he bring greater peace than Augustus? His very lowliness and seeming powerlessness were how he could be recognized ‘he was in a manger, a feeding trough, not a throne, dressed in swaddling clothes not purple robes”
Yet angels did proclaim the Good News that was for all people, not just those who followed the emperor. We are meant to see in this that Jesus was more powerful than Augustus. They both offered peace Jesus the peace of the kingdom, Augustus the peace of the empire. The empire could exist only by overwhelming physical power from which resentments and anger emerged. It would always require terror to keep it together. The kingdom of God is based on harmony between God and humanity, among humans ourselves and humans and nature. Where the power of the empire was based on external force, the power of the kingdom was based on internal harmony.
It is, however, a gift. We are told here at the very beginning of the gospel that this peace is given to those on whom his favor rests. We cannot create it ourselves, nor reason ourselves to it nor certainly in any way deserve it we can only accept it.
Our Savior is revealed to us as a baby, not a general. We see the all-powerful at his weakest moment. He is not a threat; he is an invitation to love. For the good news is that ultimately the universe is sustained by the power of love not the force of arms. Luke has begun the story of Jesus in this way to present our choices starkly, who has our principal allegiance the most recent practitioner of force or the eternal Prince of Peace? There can only be one ultimate loyalty.
This may seem either excruciatingly spiritual or purely speculative. Yet look at our situation today in America. We are a divided nation, and the clearest sign of religious affiliation is partisan political allegiance. Our politics will more likely determine our religion than the reverse. We know that it is worship of an empire because it brought the division of force not the harmony of love.
As Catholics, we must recognize that Catholic Social Teaching is far richer than any political theory can encompass. To the extent that we are Catholic, we will never be satisfied with any political party or ideology. The problem is that we have too often become too satisfied, and it seems so now.
Emperors of every kind give us what they can up front and unambiguously. If we are lucky that will provide external peace, preventing foreign invasions and violence in our streets. When they do, they should be suitably rewarded but not with ultimate loyalty. That belongs to God alone who introduces himself to us as a baby and most clearly revels himself to us on the cross.
Both are understandable only by love. On first glance, love is feeble compared to force, but look at what you do for love. Look at how it motivates you. We move mountains for our children, we suffer for our spouses, and we care for our parents all far beyond reason and all for love. Christmas is the time when the church teaches us the practical effects that God is love, whether in the manger or on the cross, it will always conquer.
St. Paul tells us that love never dies. We celebrate today that love always wins.