There is a recurring hilarious/facepalm (delete according to opinion) scenario in my marriage. I start to tell a story and fairly quickly my wife Jen detects a slight change in the tone of my voice that few else in the room would detect. She then bites her tongue and squirms with visible waves of tension coursing through her body, as she awaits the inevitable. She knows that even though everyone else thinks I am telling a worthy, important story, I am about to reveal that the whole (often lengthy) preamble has been the set-up for a particularly brilliant/excruciating (delete according to...you get the idea) pun.
How you hear a story depends on what type of story you think you are hearing. You might also say that how you hear it depends on what you are looking for from the story.
If all you are looking for is a bit of cheer at the end of a hard year, then that is probably all you will hear. Or if your only context for the Christmas story is that we are sinners and desperately need someone to sort out our sin, then whatever happens within the story will be fitted into that frame. If that is all you are looking for, that is all you will find. Where and when the story happens, and what else is going on at the time, is interesting, but to be honest just serves as Christmas decoration on the set of the central theatre.
But the spectacular and subtle entrance of Jesus into time and space did happen at a particular time and in a particular space. The first person mentioned in Luke's telling of the great story is not Mary. It is King Herod. My dear friend and church leader John Good recently did a great job of sketching Herod's 'backstory'. This was no shy, retiring bureaucrat. On his father's death, with the skill of a politican, he secured an appointment from Rome to be the ruler of Judea. Yes, his ultimate authority came from Rome, but he ruled with an iron grip. He flexed his military muscle with pleasure, expanding his territory into modern-day Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. He built great aqueducts and ampitheatres, earning the moniker 'Herod the Great'. In fact his mantra was 'Make Judea great again' (delete #fakenews as appropriate).
However, none of his epic projects or conquests compared to the Herodium. This is a man who built a mountain to underline his greatness. Yes – a mountain. Built by slaves, with an artificial lake perched on top, no less, to commemorate his most famous victory against the Parthians. What type of man builds a pointless structure to massage their own fragile ego? I can't imagine it happening today.
Herod is a man who knows that appearance is everything, and if he looks powerful, he will be powerful. Herod's grip on this power was enforced by remarkable cruelty, and his paranoia vented this cruelty even on his own family. There are few things more ugly than the combination of power and paranoia, and Herod lived right at their nexus, always fearing where the next challenge to his rule would come from.
So what's the one thing you don't ask this this all-powerful, near-psychopathic King?
'Er, excuse us, your majesty. May you reign forever...and do you happen to know where the new King is?'
Have they a death wish? These men are not 'wise'. They are unhinged. Suicidal. Or maybe just gloriously, worshipfully naïve.
The wise men thought they knew what power looked like. That's why they headed to Herod's palace. But then along comes a baby who looks the absolute opposite of powerful. Here comes a different kind of kingdom. Here comes a different kind of leadership. Here comes a different kind of politics.
Herod's reign is a huge part of the context that Jesus steps into. Our world is not uncontested territory. This is not a pleasant story, set in a neutral space, to make everything a bit more colourful and kind. This is not just chaplaincy to power. This is a direct challenge to the status quo, and although the story is of course so much more than just political, that doesn't stop it being very political. Herod is not thinking, 'Ah – no challenge to me – that's fine, another spiritual guru – another religious service provider – a more interesting player in the "faith sector".' He senses the cosmic scale of what is happening.
And he wasn't the only one. When Mary, the poor, shunned member of an oppressed people, told her cousin Elizabeth that God was 'turning the world upside down', she didn't just mean the religious world. She meant the world. And boy do we still need that as 2018 beckons.
But Herod's genocidal response to the news of Jesus shows how far people will go to cling to power. We must realise this is a battle. Not against flesh and blood, of course, but a battle nonetheless. There is nothing more scary to those who hold power than those who know where ultimate power resides.
Those who will not serve two masters,
Those who will choose kingdom over tribe,
Those who are not ashamed of the gospel,
Those who will speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.
Those who will choose his glory over self-promotion,
Those who will choose truth over expediency,
Those who will listen to the still, small voice more than the megaphone of the media,
Those who will care for the least of these, rather than genuflect to the greatest.
So this Christmas, could we emulate my wonderful and mildly persecuted wife? Could we incline and train our ears to hear the political tone in the voice of the Christmas story? And moreover, could we refuse the easy answers of either abusing or eschewing power and instead walk the more complicated path of channelling it well? Much like the paradox of God as a baby.
Politics is dirty. So was that manger. The challenge awaits.
Andy Flannagan is the executive director of Christians in Politics.