Luke 2: 1-20
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, [or Christ] 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, [or, army] 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.
This week I am not so much undertaking an exegesis of the text, as I am reflecting upon my experience of Christmas and upon Luke's story. I've read my own post from 2014, and now begin with two superb paragraphs from a sermon by James T. Dennison, Jr, whose facility with words I envy!
The day of his birth was celebrated in messianic strains. His career was recalled with rapt devotion. He was hailed 'prince of peace'–bringer of tranquility–the deliverer–the deliverer from war and bloodshed. Truly with his advent, men could put up their swords. A golden glow spread its fingers over the world. Light–aureate sunlight–was the image of his reign. A golden age had dawned and mankind basked in the luster of his kingdom: happy, contented, at peace. For their cosmic benefactor–their savior (soter) bestowed upon them mercy, justice and freedom (caritas, justitia, libertas). With the advent of this glorious one, no less than a new age arrived. A new age and a new order–the transformation of the world; the end of the old–the inauguration of the new.
Is this not the world we desire, "the good news that the world [has] a new beginning…?"
The soul of the empire was tyranny–the autocratic dominance of the many by the few. Cicero was executed by Marc Anthony. Cato committed suicide in the face of Julius Caesar's imperial policies. Catullus bemoaned the loneliness of man. And Augustus? Augustus was a butcher–brutally, systematically eliminating every hand which had been raised against Caesar. People's attention was successfully taken off the emperor and his reign of terror by the busyness–the building program, the revival of a plethora of pagan gods, goddesses and temples, the games and holidays. Every manipulator has his or her agenda–for those with eyes to look beneath the veneer, to peer behind the facade–the reality remains what it was for Augustus–brutal and tyrannical. (James T. Dennison, Jr)
For the majority of "all the world" who were being registered, there was no peace at all. There was only occupation, which was all the more brutal because the surface civilities required in Rome, did not apply offshore.
If we cannot see parallels in history ever since then, right down to the current calls for registration, we are blind to the world in which we live, and have been captured by the propaganda of Empire. Each new world order is always only more of the old.
On Christmas Day, we will read in our churches another announcement of The Peace, an announcement which is a complete contradiction of the order of Empire.
We will read the birth announcement of
the one who will be great,
who will be called the Son of the Most High,
to whom the Lord God will give… the throne of his ancestor David;
the one who will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, in a kingdom without end.
(based on Luke 1:32-33)
The angelic messenger says
‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you euangelion (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 army, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ (Luke 2:10-14)
John Petty reminds us that "Luke didn't invent the word euangelion." —gospel, or good news.
It was a word that was commonly applied to Caesar. "Euangelion! Good news! Caesar is victorious in Gaul!"… Luke's announcement of Jesus as "savior" is a way of saying, "Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not." Moreover, this "savior" comes from the house of David. He is not only "lord," but "messiah." (John Petty)
The Peace begins
The Peace begins with Jesus, who is born in the midst of an ordinary peasant family.
The tradition places the birth in a stable, which we of European stock inevitably imagine as a separate shed, which we beautify with lambs, cattle, and freshly bathed and groomed shepherd boys. We preachers sometimes try to bring home the gritty reality of birth in an earth floor shed. We point out the sudden elevation of despised shepherds, and seek to preach God coming first to the poor and dispossessed. It is a true instinct, and it preaches well the meaning of the birth of the son of God in a stable.
Except… the story almost certainly does not mean to say that He was born in a stable. This is an open secret amongst preachers and scholars, largely because we choose not to hear it, and preachers have enough stress at Christmas time without creating a controversy. How many Christmas carols and cards would become redundant, and how would we rethink the Sunday School nativity scene without a stable!?
But when Luke indisputably speaks of an inn (in the Parable of the Samaritan) he uses the word pandocheion. (10:34) He uses the word we translate as inn (katalumati) in another place; in Luke 22:11. There, the kataluma is the upper room— the guest room. For the poorest of families, this might only be a lean to on the side of the house. In the text, there is no stable mentioned at all, only a manger. We assume it.
The significance of this becomes clear when we understand how family works in this culture. Joseph is coming home. Even if he had never been in Bethlehem, perhaps his grandfather Matthat (3:24) left town years before for some reason, it would be unthinkable for Joseph's wider family not to welcome and accommodate him. So in the culture of the story, Mary and Joseph cannot have the relative privacy of the guest room when Jesus is born, because it is already full. So Jesus is born in the one other room of the house, the main room, which included the few precious animals of the family; an ox perhaps. Even a donkey. And he is born with all the family present.
At one end of this room there were usually feed stalls— often just a hollow in the floor. He is placed there, wrapped in the swaddling bands of the welcomed child who is loved and accepted. (For more well summarised detail, see Ian Paul.)
The Peace is meant to be like the glory that James Dennison described in the opening lines of his sermon (above). But we can see that Augustus was a parody of the one who brings The Peace. Luke's story of the birth of Jesus is a direct and total challenge to imperial power. He is announcing the real Peace. The Peace God gives begins at— grows from— the base of society; a loving family which will not allow others to be excluded.
Keeping the Peace
In the secular feast of the Australian Christmas we seek to keep the peace. Ask us about Christmas and it's about giving and family; we have understood, very well, something of what sustains us.
But we are losing the peace. It's not just that Christmas is done without reference to God. In my childhood, people still took Christmas leftovers to the "poor people." It was often patronising; I cringe at some of my memories of "helping" others. But today? Boxing Day is the time of the post-Christmas sales; it is the feast of yet more consumption, not the giving of love (charity). It is all about us, and those who are ours. There is no room for the poor.
And even we who may give to The Smith Family are often removed from the giving; it's done ahead of Christmas to enable us to have our family time together. Or we pack hampers— some churches undertake a prodigious and exhausting task here, packing hundreds of boxes of food, which again, is often anonymous in its giving, and remote from the people concerned.
This is perhaps inevitable in the anonymity of a large urban centre. But it is also a symptom of our individualistic society; a society which is about the individual getting ahead. And so we exhaust ourselves seeking to keep the peace— peace among the in-laws, avoiding the fights on Christmas Day, and somehow, if we can squeeze it in, doing a bit extra for charity. The culture has squeezed us into its mould. (Ro 12:2 JB Phillips)
The truth is that if the Gospel is truly heard in Bethlehem, then it is not only unthinkable for Cousin Joseph and Mary to be turned away, even though the house is full. It is unthinkable to turn anyone away. The Samaritan, and all the stories of the kingdom of God mean that family—never excluded— comes last… !!! whereas in the slavery of the Australian Christmas we appease family, and then help others if we can. Or, because in practice, only our family matters, we conclude we cannot help.
It's because in Australia we seek to keep the peace. But in reality— and this is not just clever words— the peace keeps us. Pauline Hanson, and others, want to keep the peace by excluding people who are not 'family.' The only peace that there is… comes from welcoming them all in.
How would things change if we prioritised the living of The Peace? In many of our families distinct lack of peace would follow suggestions that we change Christmas traditions! But what we have of The Peace is a direct result of how much we live it; a direct result of how much, and how little, we welcome all people, and not just our own.
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!
In previous years...
Luke 2:1-20 - Taking Christmas Seriously
Luke 2:1-20 - The apple of my eye
Luke 2:1-20 - Red Pills for Christmas
Luke 2:1-20 - The First Chaser
Luke 2:1-20 - Taking Stock of Christmas
Luke 2:1-20 - Pondering Christmas Griefs
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