Only two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, include accounts of the Nativity and childhood of our Lord. John’s gospel has a pre-infancy narrative (to put it mildly), focusing on the pre-incarnate, eternal Christ, God from all eternity before he took flesh from the womb of the Virgin. Mark also omits this material, although the incipit (opening words) of his gospel contain perhaps the most arresting Christmas message of all:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
With this short sentence, Mark has immediately captured the attention of the entire world, both Jew and Gentile. It’s like a slap in the face, or a dousing with ice-cold water. To paraphrase Saint Paul, first for the Jew: Jesus is the Christ. And Christ is, of course, not Jesus’ last name, but the Greek form of Messiah.
Then for the Gentile: Jesus is the “Son of God”. Mark’s gospel was originally addressed to Rome, and what stands behind it is the eyewitness testimony to Christ’s life of Peter, the Church’s first pope, martyred in the Eternal City. But “Son of God” did not mean to the first-century readers of the gospel what it means to many today. For the Romans, the only “Son of God” they knew of was the emperor. Julius Caesar, the first of the Caesars, was postumously declared to be a god. Every Caesar afterwards, from Augustus on (who reigned as Emperor when Christ was born), was declared to be the divine “Son of God” and “Universal Savior of Human Life”. Many ancient Roman inscriptions have been uncovered to this effect. Even Augustus’ birthday was declared to be “the birthday of the god”.
Moreover, each time Rome won a military victory, or a new Emperor took the throne, it was published throughout the empire as “Good News”. In fact, the very reason why Jesus was derided in his passion by the Roman soldiers the way he was (the purple robe, the crown of thorns as opposed to a garland of laurel, and the mock homage paid to him – “Hail, King of the Jews!”) was to imitate, in jest, the coronation ceremony of the emperor (“Hail, Caesar!”). Little did they know what sort of King they were dealing with.
This why Mark’s very first sentence was a challenge to the entire world, both Jew and Gentile alike. “In your face, Caesar!” is how one scholar describes it. To us, we who have heard the life of Christ so often that it almost seems routine, the first verse of Mark can seem trite. But when we read it through the eyes of a first-century subject of the Roman Empire, it is bracing.
This is why one of the most important persons mentioned in Mark’s gospel is the Roman Centurion who stood by the cross of the dying Jesus. After years of serving Caesar, he is moved by Christ’s death, and realizes, “Truly, this man is the Son of God” (Mark 15:39, emphasis mine). Jesus is the true divine Son of God, not Caesar. He is the true Universal Savior of Human Life. It is the day of his birth that is “the birthday of the God”. And it is he who deserves our allegiance, this Christmas and always. Merry Christmas, and may God bless you.
Postscript: The image selected for this post, Lorenzo Lotto’s Nativity, contains a crucifix in the background. Fitting, for the shadow of Calvary hung even over Bethlehem. The Nativity of Christ is the Christmas gift given. The Crucifixion is the gift torn open. The Eucharist is the gift received.