Pondering Christmas Griefs

Christmas Day 2014
Gospel: 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, 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.

In two massive outpourings of grief we Australians have declared our desire for a peaceful kingdom. The funeral for Gough Whitlam was also a time for serious consideration of where we are headed as a nation, and indeed, for some grief about what we seem to have lost. But it was insignificant compared to the immediate outpouring of visceral, unconsidered grief at the death of Phillip Hughes; my own grief startled me.

I wrote to friends,

Is he a symbol? Nice young bloke who had it made... untimely death... so unfair... He stands for so much of our loss- even the godlike among us are vulnerable. Death has intruded even into the places where, for a while, we seek to forget the savagery and the plain grind of the world.

As one noted

Death just is not supposed to intrude onto the cricket ground…. that is where we go for a different story. 

Even in Australia, police sieges are not particularly uncommon. They mostly rate a brief mention in the news, but for a few hours Martin Place held the attention of the whole country. Which is more remarkable, the massive outpouring of floral tributes at the site which has drawn comparisons with the death of Princess Diana, or the #llridewithyou hashtag which is so much at odds with the too frequent haters of difference? I have enough diversity in my "Facebook family" to note how much such hate has been missing. We long for the kingdom of heaven. Perhaps the Gosford Anglican Church sign said it all.

Gosford Anglican Church Sign 

And now we are at Christmas.

In this old story there is a touch of magic, of the mythic, and of the universal. In Matthew there are stars to follow, exotic magi, and massacres which have already happened again this week with the mass murder of school children in Pakistan. The story in Luke does not match Matthew's telling. In Luke there are shepherds, not magi. There is no guiding star.

It seems that Luke and Matthew, whatever moved them to add their differing birth narratives to the framework of Mark, had to account for two key traditions. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, so Matthew had to get him to Nazareth because everyone knew he was from Nazareth. Nazareth is  where Luke starts, so he has to get Jesus to Bethlehem in time to be born!

Each of them shaped a theological message around these two traditions. They told a story which would highlight the significance of the child who was born and which would enrich the meaning of the stories of Jesus they took from Mark and elsewhere. Indeed, there is some evidence, with very early witnesses, that Luke wrote the body of his gospel first, and then afterwards wrote the birth narrative as a prologue! (The Gospel According to Luke Fitzmeyer pp 310) While it's traditional in some parts of the church to decry such critical discernment, it thrills me to see traces of an author honing and fine tuning his message.

The mythic and universal nature of Luke is well illustrated by his genealogy at the end of Chapter 3. Here Adam is the Son of God, and the line stretches all the way from Jesus to Adam. Fitzmeyer (Ibid pp491) says that Luke himself added the last connection of Adam as son of God; it does not exist elsewhere. Jesus' significance is universal. It really is good news and great joy for all the people! (1:10)

But this is no cosmic myth. It is not one more legendary story. It happened in the reign of Emperor Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. It is placed into historical time and space. It is real life. By all accounts Luke has the dates wrong; Quirinius held a census, but it was later than the time the tradition remembered as the birth of Jesus. (Here and Here.) This historical error highlights the theological intent of the story:

In his hubris Augustus, styled as the saviour of the world, who was the good news of the world, took upon himself to count the whole world. It was his to tax. Yet all he achieved was to ensure that the true saviour, and the real good news, was born in Bethlehem, the home of the Messiah. Like Cyrus, another great ruler of all his world, he was merely an instrument in God's hands. He was, like Cyrus, used in God's intention to nurture the shoot from the stump of Jesse, so that

earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea. 
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:9b-10)

To unpack this.

The Empower Cyrus the Great  "is unconditionally praised in the Jewish sources."

Thus says the Lord to his anointed [ie, his Messiah!], to Cyrus,
   whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
   and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
   and the gates shall not be closed…  (Isaiah 45:1)

Not so Augustus. Luke introduces Augustus decreeing a census. This can only be seen as an "introduction with prejudice," because the census by David resulted in the deaths of 70,000 Israelites at the hand of God. Indeed the Chronicles version of the story says Satan provoked David to take this course. (2 Samuel 24, 1 Chronicles 21)

So Jewish readers cannot help but see his hubris backfires by bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the house of David. 

We begin to see that the story is not only grounded in space and time, but that it is deeply political. You cannot mention Davidic descent, and have Jesus born in Bethlehem— especially with a divinely engineered arrival in Bethlehem, and claim otherwise.

Jesus is her May's firstborn son. Apparently there has been argument over whether he is firstborn or only, (as in only child of Mary) because the translation will stand both words. In relation to all this, Brian Stoffregen suggests

There may another reason why Luke uses prototokos for Jesus. That became part of titles given to him: "the firstborn of all creation" (Col 1:15); "the firstborn of the dead" (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5); the firstborn (Rom 8:28; Heb 1:6).

There is beautiful poetry in the Wisdom of Solomon which would also resonate with "Jewish ears'" appreciation of the significance of Jesus.

I also am mortal, like everyone else,
a descendant of the first-formed child of earth;
and in the womb of a mother I was moulded into flesh, 
2 within the period of ten months, compacted with blood,
from the seed of a man and the pleasure of marriage. 
3 And when I was born, I began to breathe the common air,
and fell upon the kindred earth;
my first sound was a cry, as is true of all. 
4 I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. 
5 For no king has had a different beginning of existence; 
6 there is for all one entrance into life, and one way out. Wisdom of Solomon 7:1-6)

And more in Ezekiel:

The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, 3and say, Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite. 4As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths. 5No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born.

Wrapping in swaddling (a tradition across much of Earth still, and abandoned only since the 17th century in Europe) is a sign of love and acceptance. Words are not wasted in the gospels, they are there for a reason. We can hear swaddling clothes as the words of a carol and miss the deeper meaning.

The carols and the nativity scenes which influence our imagining of the story can romanticise its grit. John Bell's carol gets back to the guts of the birth story:

Not the powerful, not the privileged 
not in the famous in the land 
but the no-ones and the needy 
were the first to hold to God’s hand (from Innkeepers and Light Sleepers)

Loader says:

Not really an ‘inn’; more a sheltered area to protect people from the cold for the night; not really a stable, just a convenient cover for putting a new born baby when there’s nothing else – but outside the shelter. The scene is more familiar to those who have watched the creative way bits of cardboard and sheets of metal can make a shelter on the pavement for refugees or village people seeking work in overcrowded cities, but with some still needing to sleep on the ground outside. 

Maybe we should forget some of the manicured Christmas card stables and walk the streets instead.

The shepherds also bring grimy scandal to the story. David was a shepherd, and kings were often seen as shepherds protecting their people. But in the time of Jesus, shepherds had a poor reputation.

Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) says of them: "... in the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others' lands" [p. 65].

The good news really is for all people; the first ones told are the shepherds.

The birth is announced to shepherds in the field, and not to the powerful in rich palaces.  The scandal of the virgin birth is not so much that Mary was a virgin.  Lots of famous people were said to have been conceived by various gods, including Caesar Augustus himself.  The scandal was that Jesus--a poor kid from a jerkwater town--was born of a virgin [and the army of God tells only the shepherds!]  (The image of the shepherd also is a reminder that King David, soon to be mentioned yet again, was also a shepherd. (Petty)

And then the political implications of this birth are hammered home.

In the presence of an army of angels— that's what the Greek word for host is, and the verse implies none too subtly that it is God who is greater than Augustus who is saying all this— it is said that

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. This material is common knowledge to many Christians, and unwelcome news to others because of what it implies. I quote two web pages which readers may consult in full, but the same material can be found in any reputable commentary.

The angel announces "good news (euangelion) of great joy for all the people"--or, in my translation:  "...a joyful message to you, a great gladness, which will be to all the people." 

Luke didn't invent the word euangelion.  It was a word that was commonly applied to Caesar.  "Euangelion!  Good news!  Caesar is victorious in Gaul!"… Caesar Augustus was known as "the savior of the world."  He had brought order to the world after a long war.  Great poets, historians, and politicians lauded the peace of Augustus.  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." (Petty)

And

Augustus was remembered as the founder of the empire that brought peace to the world. There is an inscription at Halicarnassus that calls him "savior of the whole world". Brown writes: "It can scarcely be accidental that Luke's description of the birth of Jesus presents an implicit challenge to this imperial propaganda, not by denying the imperial ideals, but by claiming that the real peace of the world was brought about by Jesus" [p. 415]

Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) notes some contrasts:

The Savior of all people was born under the reign of Caesar Augustus, whose peace paled before that announced by the angels. The Messiah born under Roman oppression, which was so evident in the forced registration, would overthrow the powerful and raise up the oppressed. [p. 63] (Quoted in Stoffregen)

I wonder if we in the west can really understand the import of these texts. To write this, and to read this aloud in worship is to be like the man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, or the students of the White Rose handing out pamphlets, or being Desmond Tutu in apartheid South Africa. One's survival is uncertain.

Yet the blatant political criticism of "The Peace" which we see in the Christmas story, and which we are sometimes so unwilling to acknowledge, let alone live out, is the outworking of the grief and the desire for a better nation that we see in our response to the deaths of Phil Hughes and the victims of Martin Place. At such moments we become a "nation at its best," but we cannot be this nation every day without listening to Luke and seeing him and living him as more than a sweet Christmas carol story.

Luke has shaped and added his own insights to the Good News of Jesus Christ announced in the Gospel of Mark. A good news which is about freedom from the oppressive "powers that be" that rule of lives both through naked political power and through the vicissitudes and arbitrary probabilities of illness, or being in a chocolate café just a few moments too late, or the unfortunate bounce of a cricket ball.

And then he has gone back and written the introduction:

Do you see? Do you see that the good news of life is not Augustus' good news. It is not-Augustus. It is non-violent, non-exploitative, non-profit, non-exclusive. It is compassionate, for all people, especially for the poor. It is God given, not given from Augustus. It is seen in Jesus, and that is where your allegiance must go if you wish to be part of the real kingdom. If you do not turn your back on Augustus, you will not live in the good news which is the only kingdom for which will have no end. (1:33) [Me reading Luke.]

I note only that Augustus and Rome are long gone. Other kingdoms, and even our whole civilisation, look shaky. To which kingdom, and to which saviour, will we give our life? Will we aspire to the ideals and example of Jesus, or the ideals of the powerful and their politicians who seek to count us as theirs, and live off our labours, or worry that the siege will affect the Christmas spend?

Andrew Prior
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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