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Christmas and civil disobedience

Charles Rice | Tuesday, November 28, 2006

As we move into the Christmas season, maybe you think it has nothing to do with the political season we just survived. If so, think again.

The Magi were latecomers to the Christmas narrative. But they tell us a lot about Christmas as a political event. According to tradition their names were Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar. They got some good press from Benedict XVI last year at World Youth Day in Cologne. In 1164 the relics of the Magi were formally transferred from Milan, across the Alps to Cologne where, in the words of Benedict, the people “produced the most exquisite reliquary of the whole Christian world and raised above it an even greater reliquary: Cologne Cathedral.”

So what do the Magi have to do with politics? In their day there was no recognized moral limit to the power of the state. The Magi proclaimed one by defying Herod’s command that they tell him where the Child was so “that I too may go and worship him, (Matthew 2:8).” He was, of course, a lying politician, which some may regard as a redundancy. When the Magi had departed for home, Joseph was warned by an angel to take the Child into Egypt because Herod wanted to kill him. Joseph obeyed and he and Mary joined the Magi as the first practitioners of civil disobedience in the Christian era.

What got into the Magi to make them challenge the King? At World Youth Day, Benedict explained that the Magi had come seeking the prophesied “King who would be intimately united with God, a King who would restore order to the world, acting for God and in his Name.” That King turned out to be “quite unlike what they were expecting.” Still, “they knelt down before this child and recognized him as the promised King. But they still had to … change their ideas about power, about God and about man, and in so doing, they also had to change themselves. Now they were able to see that God’s power is … the power of love … which constitutes the new divine intervention that opposes injustice and ushers in the Kingdom of God.”

Christmas made visible the Incarnation in which the second person of the Trinity became man. When that Child became an adult, he spelled it out for Pilate, that the power of the state is given by God and is subject to his law: “Thou wouldst have no power at all over me were it not given to you from above,” (John 19:11).” This juridical impact of the Incarnation had become reality at Christmas in the civil disobedience of the Magi and then of Joseph and Mary.

Benedict asked the youth at Cologne, “what does all this mean for us?” He answered his own question by giving them a short course on the nature of true revolution. “The saints,” he said, “are the true reformers … In the last century we experienced revolutions with a common programme – expecting nothing more from God, they assumed total responsibility for the cause of the world in order to change it. [This] meant that a human and partial point of view was always taken as an absolute guiding principle. Absolutizing what is … relative is … totalitarianism. It does not liberate man, but takes away his dignity and enslaves him.

“It is not ideologies that save the world, but only a return to the living God, our Creator, the guarantor of our freedom, the guarantor of what is really good and true. True revolution consists in simply turning to God who is the measure of what is right and who at the same time is everlasting love.”

The Magi sent a news flash to the world that there is a law higher than the state. That higher law, however, like any law, makes ultimate sense only if we can identify its lawgiver and discern his intent. That Lawgiver is the Child whom the Magi adored. As Benedict, the Vicar of that Child, told the youth at Cologne, “Here in the Sacred Host he is present before us and in our midst … as he was then in Bethlehem.”

So Christmas tells us a lot about how to keep politics in perspective. That is so because that Child himself is still a current event.

Professor Emeritus Rice is on the law school faculty. He can be reached at (574) 633-4415 or at rice.1@nd.edu. His column appears every other Tuesday.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.