The Reading for Christmas Day
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.
8 In 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 Saviour, 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 favours!’
15 When 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.
“The birth stories are the last part of the tradition. They are written as meditation and manifest on the life and death of Jesus." This is not a new idea. Joseph Fitzmyer (pp311) notes that Ephraem of Syria (born CE 306) assumes the Christmas story (Luke 1:5-2:52) is a later insertion to the gospel. (The Gospel According to Luke Yale University Press 2006 paperback)
Paul’s writings, the first Christian writings we have, say nothing of Jesus' birth. Mark, the first gospel, is completely disinterested; you would think he had never heard such traditions. There has been, by the time of Matthew and Luke, the development of a “Christmas” tradition; stories of his origins. Fitzmyer lists 12 common points between the two gospels’ birth narratives, then says the two stories "cannot be put in parallel columns in a synopsis." They have a "striking structural difference." (pp307)
Matthew and Luke have taken the tradition of Mark, and other material, and each added their own birth narrative "as a sort of overture to the gospels proper." (Fitzmyer) John, of course, has also added a "birth narrative." His overture, that glorious hymn at the beginning of the gospel, is about the Word that Was in the Beginning, and Was God.
There was a time when, if I had read even this far, I would be shutting off this web page by now. A mixture of fear and disappointment at the writer’s departure from the truth would blind me to anything else that might be written here. I see it differently now, and I’m glad. It’s a far richer Christmas for me.
After reflecting on the Gospel of Mark, and upon the Jesus traditions received by his own community, Luke has done something special. He has written his overture. It is true that he edited and embellished Mark, and added his own insights- his own spin, as we say now. But here, in these first two chapters we have pure Luke, the essence of his gospel. This is the lens through which to read the rest of the story. Here he is not bound by a settled tradition. He is being himself, working with a much more fluid and sketchy tradition, using it to interpret the familiar body of stories which his people already knew.
In this week’s lectionary, his story of Jesus’ birth begins with that other Great One; Augustus Caesar. Augustus was known as Saviour and Lord. He was called the Saviour of the Whole World. They said of his birthday, September 23, “the birthday of the God has marked the beginning of the good news through him for the world.” (Fitzmyer pp393)
In this story from Luke Augustus shows his power by ordering a worldwide census. This Lord has power over everyone. Ironically, this power is used by God to cause the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem. Significantly, unlike the Persian Emperor Cyrus whom Second Isaiah called a messiah, an anointed one of God, Augustus is not the servant of God. Augustus is a pretender who is opposed to the plans of God. The gospel is contra Augustus.
Augustus forces Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Luke specifically says Joseph went to “Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.” This is not padding. It is not colour for the story. This is politics. David was the great king whose descendants would always be, according to promise of God, on the throne in Judea. Despite everything Augustus claims and does, the memory of David is still alive in the land. It reminds me of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe where, even in the dead of witch’s winter, rumours arise that “Aslan is on the move.”
All we have said so far comes from reading only today’s reading. But in the first chapter there have already been announcements and songs. Indeed Aslan is on the move!
You will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will name him “God Saves.” He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (1:31)
Bill Loader calls Luke’s story a “cheeky” parody of the story of Augustus. Cheeky is the least of it. This subversive story is a terrifying claim, which essentially names Augustus, and all his pomp and circumstance, as pretender to the throne of God. It is entirely appropriate for any Herod, and all Jerusalem with him, to be troubled by such claims, for they challenge the fabric of the Empire, and put at risk the privilege of many!
In contrast to the sentimental tellings of nativity plays, and some sermons, Jesus is born very quickly. Two verses are all it takes, including the manger, and no-room-at-the-inn. All the traditions of ox and ass and donkeys generate from these two verses. As do the traditions of stables and caves, which are also imports into our Christmas texts. We fill in the blanks for our own purposes; Luke is more interested in theological meaning and significance than providing a “realistic” story.
Jesus is born and Luke quickly moves on to meaning. The angel says, “I bring to you good news of great joy for all the people... to you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is the Messiah the Lord.”
Notice the density of this pronouncement.
There is no fat through the muscle of this story. No words are wasted.
In fact, our irrepressible tradition of “filling in the blanks” in the Jesus story is a good instinct. When we look at the narrative we see it is loaded with words and images that demand our imagination. Hints and allusions abound.
The world, with all its expectations of Kings and Lords, and Messiahs, is turned upside down in a carefully constructed narrative. This birth is the beginning of a new era. The rest of the Gospel fills in the details of how all this will work.
Luke was written for a world where for millions there was no room in the inn. In the gospels, and in the Christmas story, Jesus has been aligned with them. He is one of them. He is not one of us.
Most of us are like Joanna (Luke 3:8) the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza. We are privileged Christians, inescapably complicit in illicit empire. Like Joanna and Susanna we can choose our response to Jesus. We can leave the palace and the privilege, or remain on the side of Herod.
All the meaning of Christmas will depend on this choice. Could we even say our attitude to the overture to the Gospel will be the overture to our lives?
If we remain on the side of Herod Christmas will become a custom best purified of its religious contaminants. We will prefer not to have Jesus and religion involved, just like Adelaide’s enormous Christmas Pageant, forever devoid of the Christ or a nativity float. But if Jesus must be there, he will be “baby Jesus” swaddled in sentimentality. Such a Christmas will be spoiled by an honest reading of Luke, and its churches appalled by left wing, black armband, bleeding heart liberals, who will not leave religion where it belongs, and keep meddling where they don’t belong.
If we take the side of Christ, the whole world will look different, and be different. Most of us reading here will discover our enormous privilege. And discover the humanity of the smelly people who limp in from the parklands needing food.
“If you were the minister of that church each week,” said a colleague about one place, “what could you preach? Luke 4 would be all you had- hope for healing.” (She means 4:16ff.)
I thought about the prematurely old she had described creaking in on walking frames. The families with multiple early deaths, and the suicides; the lives of struggle lived in the shadow of rich people’s scorn and injustice; the knowledge- and experience- that all the probabilities of society are calculated against you.
And I remembered how the best theology I’ve ever met came out of struggle and persecution. The gospels themselves, the feminist theologians, the Christians working through the aftermath of the holocaust, and the authors who were themselves being attacked and persecuted for being different. They had the power. As did the woman from the same community my colleague was describing, who had coincidently wandered into our church a few days before, and stunned and moved and inspired me, as she described how she was dealing with the suicide of her son, the family’s golden child.
Perhaps if I had an attitude which took Luke’s carefully constructed Christmas more seriously, which left the palace with Joanna and walked with Jesus- which left that improbably clean and romantic frozen nativity tableau and actually walked with Jesus- perhaps then I would feel the joy of hope. Christmas would be family and fun, and terribly serious.
Andrew Prior Christmas 2010 First published at scotschurch.org
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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