Something was shifting in the political consciousness, symbolized by the phrase "the Holy Roman Empire"—emperors were becoming accountable to holiness. Might now had to give an account to right. The king might rule by God's gift, but God's gift was not in the king's grasp. There was another king whose cradle had been a manger and whose crown was made of thorns—not a direct rival, as King Herod had feared when he heard the news, but actually something far more threatening to the untrammeled power of kings, a king of kings and lord of lords. As the meaning of Christmas sunk in, Caesar's power was bound to wane.
As emperors' power diminished, ever so slowly but ever so surely, another idea emerged from Christmas, utterly taken for granted today but unthinkable to the Greeks or Romans: the dignity and significance of the poorest and most marginal members of society.
Shepherds played a menial role in first-century Palestine, yet here were shepherds at the birth of the newborn king. A teenage mother in dubious circumstances was of no more account then than now, but here she was receiving angels and being hailed as full of grace. Luke records a song from that expectant mother whose words could still be startling today if they were not so often sung in Latin: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."
We forget, because we cannot quite imagine, how unremittingly cruel the ancient world was to those without proper connections, fame, and signs of fortune—how routinely women were exploited and children were enslaved. We cannot quite imagine because our imaginations have been overtaken by Christmas, with its radiant mother and divine child. Look for the roots of our indignation at the indignity of the poor today, and you are taken back to Christmas—by way of carols about Good King Wenceslas, lowly cattle sheds, and "meek souls who receive him still."
Our suspicion of entrenched, absolute power; our compassion for the poor and the least; our sense that might must give account to right—much of what is most healthy about Western culture started at Christmas and is sustained by imagery drawn, knowingly or not, from its bottomless imaginative well.
So it really doesn't bother me that my neighbors of many faiths and none join in the festivities. If it has taken two thousand years to accumulate all the stories, symbols, songs, and elaborations that make our own Christmas so splendidly unruly and prolific, perhaps that is because that is how much room the first Christmas story opened up for the imagination.
Indeed, as a Christian I believe Christmas is for everyone, for it resonates deeply with what we all hope is finally true about the world, and true about our own stories. A Unitarian minister named Edmund Sears gave us one of the most haunting of Christmas carols, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," putting into words the universal longing for the day "when peace shall over all the earth / its ancient splendors fling." In many ways that yearning is a gift of Christmas itself. So let's welcome anyone who wants to "rest beside the weary road / and hear the angels sing."
Andy Crouch is executive editor of Christianity Today and author of Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.