This subject line may have taken some of you off guard because we do not often associate Christmas with great warriors. If you are lucky, you may remember from your Western Civilization classes in high school and college that Blessed Charles the Great (Charlemagne) was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800 and that one of Charlemagne's descendants, William the Conqueror, was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066 after beating Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings earlier that year. But for most people, the typical feelings associated with the Nativity are tender, comfortable, and perhaps even a little nostalgic. However, the Nativity narrative is full of this warrior motif that would come to define Jesus in his later life.
This warrior motif is quite present in Chapter 1 of Luke's Gospel. At the Annunciation, the Angel told Mary that her baby would be called "the Son of God" (Luke 1: 35). This was a title used by the Roman Emperors to legitimize their authority, so in a way, the Angel is turning Roman conventions upside down by calling Jesus "the Son of God." In Mary's Magnificat, she described how God has shown "might with his arm" and has "thrown down rulers from their thrones" (Luke 1: 51-52). Even Zechariah's Canticle is full of this imagery, claiming numerous times that God will deliver Israel from all their enemies.
The theme continues into Chapter 2. The Chapter begins with a decree that the whole world should be enrolled in a Roman Census. As part of this, people would have to go back to their hometowns to be registered. With their marching orders, Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to do this and it is there that Jesus was born. At this point, one of the most memorable parts of the Christmas story plays out. The angels came out to the fields to proclaim that the Christ Child was born. In antiquity, when a great battle was won, the victors would often send out heralds to spread the good news to the surrounding communities. In the Gospel, the angels herald the Good News to the shepherds that Jesus was born; God has won a great victory. The Gospel recounts that a host of angels then came praising God, but the word used in the Greek manuscripts is more accurately translated as "army." So we can imagine ranks of angels singing God's praises. With these facts in mind, we can get a better understanding of why those same shepherds were afraid. Not only were there angels before them, but there were all in a military formation!
At this point, you may be asking, so what? How does this all really play into the big story of the Bible and salvation history? Simeon, the devout man in the Temple when Mary and Joseph came to present Jesus, hints at this. He foretold that a sword will pierce Mary. In a way he was foretelling Christ's eventual suffering and death. Christ's passion was not simply something Jesus did because his Father would not let the cup pass him by. It was not something he did because he felt like it. He did it because he was fighting a war against our worse enemies, sin and death, a war hinted at throughout the Nativity story. So at Christmas we are not just celebrating His birth, but also our redemption that His birth made possible. Perhaps that by itself is enough to celebrate this season and to hope for "peace on earth and goodwill to all men" (Luke 2:14).