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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

Baby Jesus Goes to War: A Christmas Reflection

Shepherds, sheep, and a multitude of angels, praising God at the birth of Jesus

Two weekends ago, I attended the wedding of my dear friend’s daughter in North Carolina, a young woman who grew up with my kids for much of their childhood. My friend pastors a Presbyterian church near Charlotte, but his daughter and her new husband are Catholics and worship according to the Byzantine Rite, not the standard Roman Rite.

The wedding mass was not held in a Catholic church. Instead, they set up a make-shift Byzantine worship space in the modern-mountain lobby of my friend’s church, replete with painted icons, gold-bound Gospels, ornate communion chalice, and swinging censor shedding sweet smoke across the ceremony. At the beginning of the mass, the priest, Father Michael, said the Byzantine liturgy dates back to the fourth-century Church Father, John Chrysostom, and has not changed much in 1700 years.

In the middle of mass, during the children’s homily, Father Michael explained his many-layered vestments to the cross-legged kids. The first layer, closest to his body, was a black cassock, simple and humble, to remind him that, despite his shiny robe, underneath he's an ordinary, fallible person. The second layer was white, symbolizing his baptism, and over that he wore a wide belt of golden fabric, the same as his outer robe.

In ancient times, he said, men wore belts to tighten their loose clothing when they needed to fight. Thus, the golden belt reminds him of his duty to fight his own sin and the spiritual powers that tempt him toward it.

A Christmas Reflection: Baby Jesus Goes to War

Like Father Michael, the traditional Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke portrays baby Jesus fit for a fight. An angel appears to some shepherds, announces the birth of a savior, the Messiah, and tells them what they’ll see when they find him, a baby lying in a manger, wrapped in bands of cloth. Then Luke 2:13-14 continues:

”And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

The traditional Christmas carol, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” casts this moment as a serenade, the song of a heavenly choir praising God: “Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exaltation!” And fair enough: perhaps the angels did sing their praise.

But calling them a mere choir misses their description as “a multitude of the heavenly host.” As a footnote to the New Revised Standard Version states, in this context the Greek word translated “host” means “army.” The description seems less of a heavenly choir and more of an angelic regiment, falling into ranks behind baby-General Jesus.

Ironically, according to the angel army, the arrival of this General and his troops augurs “peace on earth," though not for all—only those whom God “favors”—and a peace won through war, not a facile absence of conflict.

Jesus’s Spiritual Battle

But which war, exactly, did baby Jesus come to engage? A spiritual one. Immediately before his first act of public ministry, God’s Spirit leads Jesus to the desert where the devil—spiritual enemy par excellence—tempts him for forty days (Luke 4:1-12). Jesus aces the test.

Jesus does, of course, have conflict with people. After the desert trial, he attends his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and declares his mission to "free those who are oppressed," flashing his Messianic badge. In response to this seeming hubris, the crowd tries to throw him off a cliff. But Jesus doesn't fight the violent rabble. Instead, Luke tells us, he "passed through the midst of them and went on his way" (Luke 4:28-30).

Immediately after this episode, Jesus casts out "the spirit of an unclean demon," which had possessed a man visiting the synagogue at Capernaum (Luke 4:31-37). The placement of these three stories, cheek by jowl, suggests General Jesus's fight is not with the flesh-and-blood enemies who wish to hurl him to his death; rather, his battle is against the spiritual powers that oppress God's people.

Nine more times, Luke refers to Jesus or his disciples casting out demons (4:41, 7:21, 8:2, 8:26-39, 9:37-43, 10:17-20, 11:14-26, 13:10-17, 13:31-32). Never does he harm a human being. Jesus loves his human enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). His aim is to heal them and reconcile them to God, not to vanquish them.

(Does Jesus even harm his spiritual enemies? The Gospels show him “casting out” demons, restraining them and separating them from people to halt their evil activity, but not destroying them. In one episode—the healing of the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8:26-39)—a group of demons beg Jesus not to cast them into “the abyss” (v. 31) [perhaps a kind of prison for wayward spirits], but instead allow them to enter a herd of swine. Jesus grants their wish, seemingly out of mercy even for the demons. Does he love them too?)

Jesus’s spiritual battle culminates in the cross. This time, instead of avoiding the violence of his human enemies, he yields to it, with great spiritual effect. As the Apostle Paul puts it,

"[God] forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. God set this aside, nailing it to the cross. God disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it." (Colossians 2:13-15)

Here, the "rulers and authorities" triumphed over at the cross are not human. After all, the Roman rulers who executed Jesus remained in place and well-armed at the time Paul wrote his letter.

Instead, the "rulers and authorities" Paul refers to are spiritual. As Gustav Aulén puts it in his famous book on theories of the atonement, Christus Victor, "The work of Christ [on the cross] is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil" (20).

“Not Against Blood and Flesh”

While Jesus's ministry—and especially the cross—marked a decisive victory in the war to liberate people from dark spiritual powers, the war is not over. The author of Ephesians writes,

"put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (6:11-12)

As Father Michael implied when explaining his golden belt, the fight goes on.

But what are we moderns to make of a fight against "devil" and "demons"? Some take such talk as an ancient effort to pick out sources of mental and physical suffering that we describe in psychological and medical terms today.

For example, in Luke 13:10-17, Jesus heals a woman who'd been crippled for eighteen years. The text describes her as "bent over and quite unable to stand up straight." While we'd likely identify the cause of her ailment as a physical problem requiring medical treatment, the passage identifies the cause alternately as "a spirit" (v. 11) and "Satan" (v. 16), which requires Jesus's spiritual cure.

I feel no need to reduce all spirit-talk to body-talk: the truth of (at least some of) our ailments may yet involve something non-physical and non-chemical. Nevertheless, in many cases, it may be that the ancients just used different concepts and language to get at something quite familiar: the restoration of mental or physical health.

How Do We Fight?

Regardless of how we understand talk of spiritual powers, practically speaking, "spiritual warfare" amounts to resisting sin (both personal and institutional) in non-violent ways. As the account of Jesus's testing in the desert suggests, the consistent aim of the spiritual powers is to tempt us to compromise God's ethical norms.

Even good people who reject biblical talk of "sin" and "temptation" must concede they sometimes fail their own ethical standards and wish to do better. Thus, the challenge of “resisting sin” is not merely for believers. Any honest, well-meaning person should take up the battle.

Resisting sin is situational; how we fight depends on what life throws at us. Nevertheless, we can still deploy certain general strategies: staying informed about what's happening in the world and our lives; reasoning well about these happenings; and disciplining our minds and bodies to act in the right ways.

These strategies are how I read Paul's admonitions to "destroy arguments...against the knowledge of God," to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:4-5), to "be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God" (Romans 12:2), and to "train yourself in godliness" (1 Timothy 4:7-8).

Ultimately, the task, here, is the growth of virtuous character. While we do have a role to play in this task, Christian tradition attributes the bigger role to God. Scripture refers to virtuous character traits as "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22-23), suggesting their source in the activity of God's Spirit. The battle mostly belongs to God.

Perhaps baby Jesus can teach us one last lesson, here. Like the Christmas child, we’re vulnerable and deeply dependent in the spiritual battle. We're easily tempted, and our weapons are mostly not of our own making. Sometimes our best strategy, therefore, is to nestle deep in the manger straw—that place our Father has put us—and let God's angels do the fighting.

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Dec 26, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you Aaron for another thoughtful piece!

Aaron Mead
Aaron Mead
Dec 26, 2023
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My pleasure. Thanks for reading!

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