[The Gospel of John is usually used to do this. But, like Mark, John has no account of Jesus' birth. So, on Christmas Eve, for a lesson that contains an account of Jesus' birth, we turn to either Luke or Matthew.
[During our Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship, we read lessons from Isaiah and Titus, this lesson from Luke's Gospel, and the majestic preface--one might say, overture--to John's Gospel.
[On Sunday morning, Christmas Day, I'll be doing a brief meditation on that overture. But for Christmas Eve, the message will be built around one of the many themes surfaced in Luke's birth narrative.
[Because of the busy-ness of this week--I also am doing a wedding--this may be the first and only pass I take at the Christmas Eve Bible lesson.]
First, the passage itself:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke is the systematizer. His intent in this Gospel and its sequel, the book of Acts, is to lay out, first, an orderly account of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection and in the latter book, the history of the Church from Jesus' ascension until a date about thirty years later.
Luke also intends to put the events in question within their historical context. Usually, Luke is accurate and successful in this second intention, so much so that he's often referred to as "the historian."
However, verses 1 through 5 have been the subject of lots of scholarly for centuries. I mean questioning from believers in Christ and the Bible. The historic facts Luke cites simply don't match what we know, or at least, we think we know, from other sources.
The issues are mainly threefold:
- 1. The eras during which the emperor and the governors cited did their work did not overlap as Luke reports.
- 2. We have no evidence of the general census Luke mentions happening until something like 6 AD, whereas it appears that Jesus' birth occurred anywhere between 8 and 4 BC.
- 3. Roman law would required neither that people go to their native areas to register for a census, even if they owned property there, or that Mary accompany Joseph on such a journey.
Frankly though, our faith doesn't rise and fall on the details of Jesus' birth. That He was born cannot be disputed.
More important are the accounts we have of His death and resurrection. They just happen to be more numerous and closer to the events themselves than those of His birth, by far. In fact, the accounts we have of Jesus' death and resurrection are more numerous, more corroborated, and more reliable than those we have of the lives or deaths of Socrates or Alexander the Great, to name just two other figures from ancient times.
But as the eminent Biblical scholar, Father Raymond Brown pointed out, the problems with Luke's specifics about the secular rulers he cites in the birth accounts are too numerous for us to easily explain. Since they aren't essential for us to believe in order to accept Christ's Lordship, it's best to move on.
After placing these events within the context of so-called secular history, although it's a stupid and ill-informed project attemtping to separate the history of the world from the God Who insistently interacts with it, Luke tells the actual story of Jesus' birth with great economy. (With far more economy, one imagines, than Mary might have used to tell it, since she was forced to give birth in a town far from her home, in a barn, without a midwife. The miracle of Christmas, Martin Luther said, was that the baby was born at all and that his mother survived the life-threatening event. Imagine it, Luther would say, it was "a sight for tears.")
According to the New Interpreter's Bible (NIB), the use of "bands of cloth" on newborns was common in those days. It showed "maternal care and may have kept the child's limbs straight."
Does the infant Jesus' placement in a feeding trough, the NIB wonders, denote His humble origins or is it "a foreshadowing of the failure of humanity to receive the Lord"? (Check out Isaiah 1:3) I don't see that as an either/or proposition. Jesus was raised in a humble household and the world would spurn Him.
I would also say that Jesus' placement in the trough carries with it a third possible significance. My professor and mentor, Bruce Schein, pointed out that the particular trough in which the baby lay was called a phantne in the original Greek of the New Testament. A phantne was usually a stone manger, suggesting the stone tomb in which the crucified Jesus would one day be lain and from which He would rise.
In Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus, we read of magi following a star from distant lands to visit the child and His family, who had, by the time of their arrival, moved to a house in Bethlehem. Luke instead shows us angels informing nearby shepherds of the event. Their sign isn't a star, but the baby in a manger.
As NIB points out, "Shepherding was a despised occupation." Shepherds were seen as "shiftless" and dishonest people who "grazed their flocks on others' lands."
But the revelation of the birth to the shepherds also solidifies the baby Jesus' connection to the throne of the great ancient King David, who was also a shepherd. It's as if the "guild" of the greatest of all Old Testament kings acknowledges this ultimate heir to the Davidic throne.
The angels' song ascribing the bringing of peace by Jesus would have been a politically subversive proclamation in the first-century world. The viciously-maintained pax romana, imposed by the Emperor Augustus, was supposedly a great blessing which was brought by the all-but-divine and nearly-worshiped emperor.
The NIB says that the shepherds' response to the revelation of the angels comes in three stages:
- their discussion with each other (v.15)
- finding the Holy Family (v.16)
- their telling about the angels' visit (vv.17-18)
(An interesting sidebar issue here is that the angels, as God's agents, have proven in these opening chapters of Luke, to be perfectly willing to give signs of the events they proclaim to those who dare to believe them. But Zechariah is deemed faithless and struck mute in Luke 1, when he demands a sign.)
"The center of the entire birth scene," says the NIB (and I agree), "...is the christological affirmation of the angel (vv.10-12) and the response of the heavenly chorus (v.14). The child is the Messiah." (Note: Christology is the study and the understanding of Christ's function, what the theologians sometimes call His office. As the Christ, God's Anointed One or Messiah, Jesus plays the central role in our relationship with God. Check out, as always, John 3:16.)
Another important point: The shepherds' trust is based on what has been revealed to them. This is a central element of the Judeo-Christian faith. When we're at our best, we who proclaim Jesus Christ is Lord do so on the basis not of what we think or what would make us popular to say or what we would prefer to be able to say, but on Who God has revealed Himself to be, ultimately in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The shepherds were seen to have faith because they lived out the trust they had in the angels' message.
Two things bring the birth narrative to their end:
- Mary listens to the shepherds and treasures their reports in her heart. It's a heart which, as old Simeon will tell her eight days later, when Jesus was circumcised in Jerusalem, will be pierced with grief. But it's also a heart that knows Who this Son is, even if there will be times when a mother's love will cause her to resist giving Him to the world to die.
- The shepherds go back to their work, glorifying God for what He has done in Christ. I wonder how many of us will go back to our work after the Christmas holidays, glorifying God in our own unique ways? He's still worthy of our glory and praise, after all.