Christmas is a time for celebration, joy, and family. But Christmas is much more than a sentimental holiday.
Christmas is subversive.
The Bible doesn’t tell us the specific date Jesus was born. Later Christians tradition gave us the date of December 25. It was chosen by Pope Julius around the year 350 and Christians have been celebrating Christ’s birth on that day ever since.
But Pope Julius didn’t just randomly pick December 25. He was deliberate. As Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan claim in their book The First Christmas, when Pope Julius declared December 25 as the date to celebrate Christ’s birth, he integrated “it with a Roman solstice festival celebrating the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.’ The Roman birthday of the sun became the Christian birthday of the Son.”
That last sentence isn’t just a cute turn of phrase. It symbolizes the subversive quality of Christmas.
The “Unconquered Sun,” or Sol Invictus, represents the Ancient Roman theological and political ways of life. The Unconquered Sun was a patron god of Roman soldiers. Rome promised peace, known as the Pax Romana, and Rome had a method to achieve this goal – through violent conquest. To celebrate the birthday of the “Unconquered Sun” was to celebrate Roman peace, but it was also to celebrate the violence of Roman conquest.
For example, after Emperor Aurelian defeated his enemies and re-united the Roman Empire in 275 A.D., he elevated the “Unconquered Sun” as the primary god of the Roman pantheon. He united the Empire behind this god and built a new temple in Rome dedicated to worshiping the Sun god.
Emperor Aurelian’s reforms were symbolic of Roman imperial theology at its core: the gods wanted peace and peace was achieved through violent conquest. December 25, the birthday of the “Unconquered Sun,” was a celebration of the god who brought peace through conquest.
So when Pope Julius declared December 25 to be Christ’s birthday, he subverted the whole Roman imperial theological system.
It’s true that the Christian Son of God and the Roman “Unconquered Sun” promised the same thing – peace. The difference is their method to achieving peace.
Whereas Roman imperial theology promised peace through political conquest, Jesus promised peace through nonviolent love. Jesus reveals an entirely different theological and political system. He showed that God’s way to peace, the “Kingdom of God,” isn’t achieved through the violent methods of the “Unconquered Sun,” but through the self-sacrificial and nonviolent love of the “Conquered Son.”
Jesus wasn’t born simply to tell us to love one another. He wasn’t executed on a Roman cross simply because he preached a message of love. Nor was he resurrected to conquer those who killed him. He was born, he was killed, and he rose again to subvert the whole theological and political system of violence with God’s nonviolent love. He reveals the absurdity of believing that the means of violence can achieve the goal of peace. As Borg and Crossan write, the “terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that endangers our world.”
That’s why Christmas is subversive. December 25 demands that we make a theological and political decision. We will either decide to follow the “Unconquered Sun” who falsely promises peace through violence, or we will follow Jesus, the “Conquered Son,” who brings peace through self-sacrificial and nonviolent love.
Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.