One of my favorite Christmas traditions is caroling on Christmas Eve. Every year for the past several years my family has gathered with Xenophon’s in our living room, and Dad has brought in his keyboard and we’ve sung Christmas carols for an hour or two. My favorites are the religious carols, and not just because I think they tend to be superior musically. I am as much a fan of love and charity and being close to friends and family—in short, the whole Christmas spirit thing—as the next guy. That’s basically what Dickens is all about, and I love Dickens. But Christmas is not about those things. And thank goodness, for Christmas spirit falls flat more often than it soars, and friends and family are rarely all they’re cracked up to be (especially family). A holiday that was founded on love and charity and family togetherness like that would quickly become a tiresome exercise in tradition—as I suppose Christmas is for many people.
No, I love Christmas spirit. But Christmas is about Jesus, and in my opinion all attempts to get around that fact end up tawdry in the end. Which is why I like the religious carols, and especially like caroling them in my living room on Christmas Eve. Oh, we joke around and laugh a lot. We aren’t a bunch of Puritans intoning religious songs because That’s What You Do on a religious holiday. But there is still something powerful about singing those songs with people who really believe the words that they’re singing, and really believe in the person and events they’re singing about.
A lot of carols picture Jesus as king—a metaphor with a pretty good pedigree, as Christians have been talking about him as king pretty much since the beginning, and the entire Messiah complex itself featured heavily the idea of kingship. But what does that mean? “Jesus as king” is a fairly rich theological concept, and while I appreciate the intellectual subtleties, I also want to be able to connect with it on a visceral level. Otherwise it’s like appreciating the richness of a metaphor in a poem without even knowing what the poet’s basic image is.
When I want to think about king in a visceral sense, sometimes I think of the medieval or Renaissance concept of a king—lawgiver, knight, and lover. But while many carols were penned with that image as their background, the first of our people to name Jesus as king obviously were thinking of a different intellectual tradition. I imagine they were mostly thinking (consciously or unconsciously) of the Hellenistic kings that had ruled the Mediterranean for centuries by the time of Jesus. After all, there was as yet no real ideology of the Roman emperor, and the Jews had not had a king for over four centuries. The only kings anybody really knew were the so-called Diadochoi, the Successors—descendants of the generals of Alexander the Great, who divided his empire upon his death.
So what was a Hellenistic king supposed to be? First and foremost, a warlord. Prof. Manning always liked to compare them to mob bosses, and they fought endless wars with each other. Second, and relatedly, a savior. The word “savior” has become a theological term of art, but its meaning as applied to a king was very straightforward and intuitive. A king was supposed to protect his people from wars, from oppressive taxes, from oppressive government—in short, he was to ensure their freedom to live full and peaceful lives. When a king went about with the title “savior” appended to his name, that is what people thought of. Some other Hellenistic kingly (and queenly) titles that I find surprising and instructive when I think of what Scripture probably has in mind when it uses kingly language:
Loves his father
Loves his mother
Loves his siblings
In reality, many kings of that era were little more than glorified thugs. But the idea of a king, that is something worth holding on to. A king is a great warrior. A king liberates his people. A king loves his parents and his brethren. A king builds great things for his people’s benefit and enjoyment. A king is always before his people.
Even the greatest of the Successors fell short of that ideal. Most didn't come close. But at the very end of the period of the Successors, a king was born who would be all those things, and still is.