"How should a king come?" asks a Christmas hymn by Carol and Jimmy Owens. I remember how one king came. Rehoboam, on ascending to the throne, was asked by Jeroboam, representative of the northern tribes, for assurances that he would lighten the yoke levied by his father Solomon. His reply, upon consulting with counselors: "My little finger is thicker than my father's thighs. . . . My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions" (1 Kings 12:10-11). The gambit cost him half a kingdom.
I didn't understand the birth narrative of Christ the King until I started thinking about His death narrative. There the marks of kingly narrative are plain. Are there not pomp and dignitaries in the stories of kings? Jesus has King Herod and Governor Pilate at his elbow. Are there not elaborate preparations? Caiaphas convenes a special session of the priests and scribes working through the night. Are there not attendants in waiting? A division of Rome's finest flanks Jesus' person, bowing, kneeling, striking with fists. Royal suit of clothing? Purple robe filched from the trash. Ceremonial washings? Centurion spittle and Pilate's hand-basin. A crown? Jerusalem thorns. A coronation mile? The trudge to Golgotha. Willing subjects flanking the procession? A Cyrenian conscript.
Sounds like an anti-narrative to me. Sounds too close a parallel not to be on purpose.
What about the birth story? Would I find the king's biographer as calculating-and subversive-in his choice of detail here? (Writers always have an angle.) A kingly birth needs heralds to announce the great event: Use shepherds, the cast-offs of society, men whose testimony is not even admissible evidence in court. A kingly birth needs drama befitting the occasion: Slight the high-born and give two peasant women the plum parts in the play. A kingly birth calls for special music: Enlist the lowing of cattle and squawking of geese. A king will have luminaries about him: Give this one His luminaries too, even if they are the literal inanimate kind. A king must have a banner: Make it read, not "my little finger is thicker than my father's thighs," but "a bruised reed He will not break."
Luke is constructing an anti-narrative, I feel sure of it now. It is deliberate. In your face. An affront. All the elements in a story of kings-but point for point the obverse. Luke not only tells of a new kind of kingdom but shows the beginning of its acting out. Cosmic upheaval is afoot. Great reversals are coming. And Mary gets it:
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant. . . . He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of humble estate. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away" (Luke 1:46-53).
It's not that God has a preference for shepherds or carpenters over satraps and Caesars. It's just that He is a King! And if His subjects will not praise Him, the very rocks and stones will sing. And if the world's rulers will not "kiss the Son" (Psalm 2:12), then shepherds and milkmaids will.
Kings and presidents come, and kings and presidents go, each out-promising the other. Yet the poor are still poor and the rich are still rich. Caesar Augustus's birth is heralded as a gift from above that "has filled him with noble concern for the welfare of all humanity, and has sent him to us and to those who come after us as a Savior who will put an end to war and set everything in order." Luke gives Caesar one verse (Luke 2:1) to Mary's 39. "How should a king come?
Even a child knows the answer, of course,
In a coach of gold with a pure white horse,
In a beautiful city in the prime of day,
And the trumpets should cry and the crowds make way.
And the flags fly high in the morning sun.
And the people all cheer for the sovereign one.
And everyone knows that's the way that it's done.
That's the way a King should come."
And so it will be one day, when the King shall come again. But not yet, not yet.