The Christmas story that every school child learns in school is a conflated version of the accounts of Jesus’s birth in the Gospel According to Matthew and to Luke. It provides a very good story for Christmas plays and for the Nativity Scene—with shepherds, sheep, and the three wise men from the East, bearing gifts.
Modern readers of Matthew’s account may not see the hidden story which the very early followers of Jesus saw—an event that followed the good news about the birth of Jesus. This is the story of the flight into Egypt that the Holy Family took, upon learning that Herod the Great wanted to kill the newborn child. The question did not arise in the early Christian minds on why despite the story of Exodus or the 40-year journey of the Jewish people towards freedom and the Promised Land away from Egyptian oppression, the Holy Family would choose to go back to Egypt,
We see all Biblical stories as plain narratives. But not the first century Christians. The Flight into Egypt expressed the possibility of being returned to a life of bondage under the Romans. Open political expressions were suppressed so their stories were rich in symbolism and metaphors. The flight into Egypt may be a metaphor. This message also uses metaphors.
The Gospel account of Matthew is basically about the battle of religious beliefs during the first 100 years C.E. or the Common Era (50-100 A.D.). In the minds of the first followers of Jesus in the first ten decades of the Common Era, the three figures of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus going to Egypt are the counter-equivalent of the three figures of Aeneas, his father Anchises, and his son, Julus leaving Troy as it was burning, immortalized in the epic Aeneid. Aeneas was the best Trojan warrior, whose mother was the goddess Venus. The bright star, Venus, guided them towards Ilium, a few kilometers from present day Rome. One family walked towards a new life in a new place, while the other journeyed back to a land of oppression.
The Romans believed that Aeneas was the ancestor of Remus and Romulus, the founders of Rome. Aeneas’ bloodline would produce Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome under whose reign Jesus was born. Augustus Caesar was therefore of divine lineage. To the Romans, their Emperor Augustus’ divinity was not myth. It was the Roman Empire’s theology. Old coins found in archaeological sites have the image of Augustus stamped on one side bearing the imprint “Divi Filius” or “Divine Son” and the image of the goddess Venus or the goddess Victory on the other side of the coin. it was Caesar versus Jesus, both divine who protect their followers
The first followers of Jesus interpreted the coming of the Kingdom of God as the beginning of a new life. The Kingdom of God referred to the transformation of Earth “as it is in heaven.” So mentioning the end time and the coming of the Kingdom, referred more to hope for the end of Roman oppression than to the end of the world as we think it now. The coming of the Kingdom of God meant the return of justice (fairness) and real peace, not the Pax Romana.
Jesus’s birth in a manger sent the message that the Son of God and the Messiah, would return the homeland back to God to be under His rule. In Leviticus 25:23, it is written: “The land belongs to me, and you are but aliens and my tenants.” This means that God gave only stewardship responsibilities to human beings on this earth, but absolute “sovereignty over land” was solely God’s.
The Roman rule skewed the economics of the Jewish homeland. Roman rule made the people poorer as land was expropriated to benefit the Romans. Jesus’s miracles and teachings through parables were thus focused on the agrarian economy and inequity or the lack of access to resources (to use modern concepts). His parables and references revolved around dwindling supply of fish, sowing seeds, tending sheep, harvesting jobs in the vineyard of the rich, and miracles of multiplication of fish, of feeding the hungry multitude and of healing the sick multitude. The Jewish people, sick and hungry, were also heavily burdened by taxes.
The economic and political environment in which Jesus carried out His mission is present in many places around us now: impoverished population, malnourished children who cannot cope with schoolwork, political leaders fawning on those in power, and big income gap. Unjust practices are seen through rent-seeking (using the government to create a policy to benefit certain entities), government commissions, political dynasties protecting the status quo, controlling resources the way Herod Antipas controlled access to the Sea of Galilee and renamed it Sea of Tiberias to honor Emperor Tiberius who succeeded Emperor Augustus. This made it difficult for the fisherfolks to feed their families. This explains why the first followers of Jesus were mostly fishermen.
Jesus preached about the justice-based Kingdom of God as opposed to the power-based Kingdom of Caesar. In the former there is equality, in the latter there was huge income disparity. In the Kingdom of God, there is true peace because there is justice; in the Kingdom of Caesar, peace or Pax Romana was imposed through the presence of the Roman legions. It was a clear choice of opposite core principles as it is now: the Kingdom of Caesar, led by a powerful man or the Kingdom of God led by a simple carpenter.
Jesus preached about changing the system that should benefit all. “The Kingdom of God is likened to a man that sowed seed on good soil” bringing prosperity to all, or to a tiny mustard seed that grew into a big tree that bore fruit for all and on which birds could perch.
The message of Jesus is very relevant now, and the commemoration of His birth should make us reflect on what must be done. Dr. Ron Mendoza, an economist and a leading advocate for reform discusses “what ails the Philippines” from its politics to its economic policies in: https://youtu.be/cJhTGciisiM
As we celebrate Christmas and give gifts, it is also the best time to ask ourselves: how can I help the Kingdom of God become a reality around me through my “life and work,” through my job, through my everyday choices? And what can I do to help bring the reality of the Kingdom of God in my country or community in a sustained way, better than the predictable acts of charity in times of crises or Christmas?
Our country’s re-form and transformation may take a 40-year journey. But we should leave Egypt again with the Holy Family to our Promised Land. Taking the first step of this journey requires a deep commitment and the stamina to persevere. And Christ’s kind of love towards all.
May the year 2022 bring the transformation inspired by Jesus’s message about the Kingdom of God on earth so that we can celebrate Christmas every day.