Earlier this month, I was driving to Dayton and listening to NPR. That morning, they were telling a story about the company Chanel. Chanel’s claim to fame has been their highly exclusive, stylish, and expensive handbags. And the story was about how Chanel had recently made the intentional choice to raise the prices of their handbags. It wasn’t because the cost of production or leather was rising. They didn’t decide to pay their employees more or ensure that they were fairly produced.
They raised their prices because too many people were buying the bags.
Yes, you heard me right. They raised their prices because too many people were buying their bags.
Now, if you are a company whose business it is to sell things – you would think that selling more bags than usual would be a positive sign.
But not for Chanel.
The allure of a signature Chanel bag is that when people see it – they say – “those are hard to get – you must have paid a lot of money for that. “
If too many people start walking around with bags – if they become too accessible to the broader public – then the ruse is up. The brand is tainted.
And so Chanel works hard to ensure that their handbags are only for the exclusive.
They do it by raising their prices. an exclusivity tax of sorts.
And they do it by the way they set up their stores. The bags are set up on a pedestal – as if they are being displayed at a museum.
The reporter was walking around the store as they were sharing the story, She says,“It is intimidating. It is done on purpose, it should intimidate you. You shouldn’t feel like anybody can participate in that world. “
That’s the line that got me.
You shouldn’t feel like anybody can participate in THAT world.
We as humans have a long history of creating systems and structures that keep us separated from one another. That ensure that we do not forget who is in and who is out. Who has power, prestige, and privilege, and who does not. Whether it is wealth, power, race, or any number of other vehicles –since the beginning of time, we have been looking for ways to decide who gets to participate in the world of privilege and who does not.
It is true now. And it was certainly true in the time of Jesus.
In fact, the story of Jesus begins – and is set – with a reminder of the great divisions that existed during the time of his arrival into the world.
In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Now to understand the importance of such a registration – we have to know a little bit of history and what was happening in the region.
The entire region that we know now as Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire.
For many decades leading up to the time of Jesus’ birth - war, destruction, and turmoil was the order of the day.
Through military conquest after military conquest, the growing empire had conquered one region and people after another.
And the Jewish peoples living in Palestine were no exception.
In 31 BCE, at the Battle of Actium, Octavian, who would become Caesar Augustus - achieved a key victory and was able to consolidate power over Rome and its dominions.
Not only was this the hay day of the Roman Empire – but it also gave way to a long season of Peace. An end to the war and violence.
For the first time in collective memory, mothers were not sending their children off to war.
And as a result – Caesar Augustus – achieved a status – of that like a God.
The Roman Empire was a religious as well as a political reality. No separation of church and state as we know today existed then.
An Empire-State entailed an empire-worship; and an empire worship in turn... entailed the worship of an emperor." At the center of this idea was that Caesar Augustus was the divine savior who had brought peace to the world.
But the start of this story reminds us again – exactly how this peace for the world was achieved.
The Peace of the Roman Empire, “the pax Romana” was achieved and enforced, of course, by military might. Through forced subjugation and slavery. Where there were clear dividing lines between those in power and those who had been conquered. Subordination as a system and the system as subordination.
One of the primary ways that this subordination happened was through taxation and tributes. And how can you be sure you are effectively taxing and subjugating the people? You can force them to register themselves. To keep the houses together and ensure and remind them of who is in power – and of their own status.
Taxation and tribute kept the people in line. It separated the classes and preserved the power and wealth of the 10%.
So, Mary and Joseph – must return to Joseph’s home of origin – his house is from Bethlehem. It doesn’t matter that Mary is 8 months pregnant. The empire doesn’t care about the inconvenience or the cost. The subjugated and oppressed people must do as they are told.
Now, many scholars and commentators have correctly reported the problems with Luke’s account of this census. Censuses were recorded in history but there doesn’t seem to be one of this magnitude when the people reported were in power.
So, some have suggested that Luke is just using the Census as a literary device to explain how it was that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem.
But the Jewish people hearing this story – the people who deeply resisted the oppression that they were under -
They would NOT have missed the introductory five verses. It wasn’t just a literary device to them – they would have placed the story of Jesus’ birth firmly in the political context of the day – as a challenge to the authority, power and alleged peace brought by the Roman Empire.
And this Savior – unlike Caesar Augustus – was a savior for ALL PEOPLE.
This Savior and ruler would bring peace for ALL PEOPLE.
The peace would be a real peace. Not a subjugation – not something that only a select few could enjoy. This peace wouldn’t be out of reach for most people. It wouldn’t depend on money, power, or status. It would be for all people.
The walls, the systems, the subjugation, the divides that had been created.
They would not have meaning. They would be broken down.’
And ALL people could see the Glory of God.
When the people of God in ancient Palestine heard the story of Jesus’ birth, it wasn’t a romantic, sentimental fantasy.
They heard a story of revolution – of liberation from subjugation.
Of direct opposition to the Empire.
Something that God was working to happen – in their midst.
In the present.
This past February, Martin and I had the privilege of traveling to the Holy Land. We had the chance to walk where Jesus walked, to ride a boat across the Sea of Galilee, to walk through the streets of Jerusalem, AND to visit the town of Bethlehem.
The day that we visited Bethlehem, we drove just a short 5 miles south of Jerusalem – like driving from here to Worthington.
The north part of the city of Bethlehem today is marked by an enormous dividing wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian Territory West Bank
The residents of Jerusalem are not allowed to come into the West Bank without special permission and the residents of the West Bank are not allowed to enter Jerusalem.
So, after passing through a heavily guarded checkpoint into the city – we were dropped off at a gift shop and encouraged to purchase some of the beautiful olive wood memorabilia, made by Palestinian Christians living in Bethlehem. What we saw was beautiful and a bit expensive. The tour company had clearly made an arrangement with the store – that was benefiting both. You bring us the Americans with money, we will pay you a cut.
After the shopping trip, we went to visit the Church of the Nativity – the oldest Christian church in the world – and believed to be the place of Jesus’ actual birth.
We waited over an hour to be led down into the dark, dank, cave – to see the small hole in the side of the rocky wall – where it was believed that Jesus and his family had settled down for the night – and laid him among the feed straw – to rest for the first time.
The church itself is now owned by 3 different denominations – 2 orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church – who fight and quibble over who gets to put their candlesticks where – and who gets to hang their bright and flashy lights and golden crosses on the particular walls of the building.
And as we exited the church, I came across a Palestinian man who was selling olivewood nativities on the street. They looked quite a bit like the ones that we had just seen at the very expensive store – for a fraction of the price.
And as I approached him – I asked him about life in Bethlehem.
He told me that this was his livelihood. That in Bethlehem, the unemployment was over 30%, and that so often the tourists who came – were taken to the rich people’s stores – instead of helping the poor in the West Bank.
We are a people divided.
I did a lot of thinking that day.
Of that cold dark rock. Of how Jesus had come into the world – to the margins of society – in the midst of a violently oppressive regime.
He had been born in the humblest of places - a rocky, barren, cold cave.
To two poor, ordinary people.
The light of the whole world had come. The living God and the embodiment of LOVE.
For All People.
available – accessible to ALL people.
And for the most part – we still didn’t really understand it.
Even in the place of his birth, even in the church that celebrates and remembers the story of the first nativity.
We still do not understand what to do with this Jesus.
In the very place of worship standing above the place where Jesus was first laid –
We are still a people divided.
In the town where he was born, there is a wall – keeping people out. And keeping people in.
We are still a people divided.
We do not understand what to do with this Jesus.
I often wondered why the angels came to announce the news to the shepherds. They were after all the Bedouin travelers – people who were on the fringes of society. They weren’t respected by the people of the time – no one would likely believe them and their story.
But perhaps the people detached from the system – the people who had nothing to lose – maybe they were the only ones who would have been ready to hear – to listen and to receive this news.
Maybe they were the only ones who would have known what to do with this Jesus and the good news that came at his birth.
Maybe they were the only ones who could really see all the ways that God – was working – against all odds – to break through the barriers. To bring love into the places of greatest violence. To reach into the depths of our human struggle and show us - that there was another way that we must live.
In modern day America –
I find it a little hard to hear the words of the angels – to hear the good news – to try and understand what God is trying to say – amidst the stockings and tinsel and presents.
We are still a people divided.
We are still a people who put up social constructs to divide ourselves.
We set up economic systems to ensure that some are in and others are out.
it seems – that we also do not know what to do with this Jesus.
Tearing down the walls isn't an easy task - and on Christmas Eve – I’m guessing you didn’t come here to stage a full scale revolution - but I invite you to not let this moment go by without some introspection. The story of the first Christmas is a story of - a God who broke through every barrier with a an expansive radical love beyond what the world had ever seen - to show us a new way to live.
It was a God willing to take on human flesh and go to the ends of the earth to help us to see a love and mercy and grace that was for ALL PEOPLE.
So – this holiday – may you first and foremost experience the incredible gift of love and grace that is Jesus Christ – Right in the midst of your present life - May you be embraced, redeemed, moved, convicted, and challenged by that love.
and may the love – the radical love – that crosses every barrier we try to construct – give us the courage to start dismantling our own barriers.
The ones we have constructed in our society to keep some out and preserve the privilege and power of others.
The barriers we have constructed in our own lives to keep us from meaningful relationships with people of a different race, nationality, class, or status.
The barriers we have constructed in our own families and among people who do not see it our way.
And the barriers we have constructed in our own hearts – to keep ourselves safe – and to keep others out.
May the radical love of the Christ who came at Christmas break through your barriers – and show you a new way to live this Christmas and this year.
It is a way of life that ALL of us can participate in.
A world that is not so out of reach. If we are open to hear.