Our reading for Christmas Eve, often used also for the day of Christmas, comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint Luke. As we read, the text first records the birth of the child Jesus within the realms of mighty men, and then provides great wonders of peace for the lowly. Our scripture reads…
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.
And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:1-21)
A Wide, Wide World…
Our author relates a history of miraculous birth to a wider world than his predecessors, or for that matter, even his Matthean contemporary. As a dedicated historian, he dates the birth of Jesus with references made as to the decree of Caesar as Emperor, and furthered noted of Quirinius as a governor. As author, Luke thus anchored his telling within a given historical time frame. Though the exact day and year of our Lord’s birth has been disputed by biblical scholars, because of the historical reference to the rule of the governor and the wintry season of shepherd activities… we find that the aim of the writer was more importantly to inform about the heavenly signs. Luke tells both the familiar and the unfamiliar persons about the identity of the Christ child. Concerning this faith history message, the gospel thus speaks to the knowledgeable Jew and to the Greek or Roman newbie.
By anchoring the time frame to these ruling figures, Luke invites the reader to begin comparisons between those political figures mentioned, and the person of Jesus, as born the Messiah (Christ) of God. Though the newborn child is not described here as hunted by these powers, such as in Matthew, the stage was set that this birth would change the course of history. There is an over-against-ness which was being established. God acted to overturn the powerful…
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give up’, and to the south, ‘Do not withhold’; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (Isaiah 43:3-7)
We clearly note that according to the prophetic scriptures, that the Law was being fulfilled by Joseph and Mary. Both the law of the Roman Empire, local governance, and religious Law was being obeyed. However, within this context of obedience, God was working to demonstrate great power. For Luke’s telling, that power was demonstrated in the declaration of angels to the lowly, and would be followed by the lowly.
Beneath the supervisory nose of the Roman world then, the history of our salvation was thus written. The context of prophetic fulfillment came true as the couple went their way to Bethlehem, where it had been scripturally established that the Messiah would be born. Take note here! Given the environment of a male-dominated society, it would seem that only Joseph would have been required by “decree” to go. But for the sake of prophetic fulfillment, though having little, or no status… Mary went with him to his home town. Thereby Jesus was born according to the prophetic texts.
We need pay attention to such details here! We note that as a ruler who would stand by the love of God above both Caesar and Quirinius and other dignitaries, Jesus was born in a place that was not in high prestige. Therefore, Luke stressed that God stood the hierarchy of the world on its head. Though of divine and royal birth, Jesus was born into a lowly place and was laid in a manger… a feeding trough! In this way, the Christ child was rightly posed as the One, the Christ child… who was born, who shall awaken… and rise to feed his followers… even unto our own day.
Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a strong man shouting because of wine. And he put his adversaries to rout; he put them to everlasting shame.
The divine witness remained with those of low station, as they who were outcast formed for us an overview of God’s redeeming love. Like his ancestor, the shepherd king David… Jesus through the lineage of his earthly father Joseph and the oneness with his heavenly Father…. would shepherd his people securely. Those shepherds who were shunned by society, yet responsible for keeping the safety of temple’s sacrificial sheep in the Migdal Eder (watchtower of Jerusalem), were caused thus by God to see and hear. They witnessed the manger as the throne of the sacrificial Lamb.
Note surely… today we need remember that Luke related this revelation as occurring during the watch of night, a time a sin and foreboding. Therefore in the dark and dreary way, both the shepherds and the oppressed reading audience of Luke heard the Good News. Luke told of a persecuted and lowly people who heard the angel choir’s singing. The angelic choir was described as heralding to them concerning the glory of God and the peace to be made available through Jesus Christ. That announcement was therefore extended to the known world of Luke’s day, and this miraculous message stands even yet for us today.
Glory to God!
How astounding is this good news? Consider this! Amid powerful men and nations, and working according to the works of the the Decalog, the Law that was given to the Hebrews and condemns sinful humanity, God provided his Own for his own. This news was so shocking that blessed Mary pondered the news in her heart. Lowly outcasts rejoiced in the faith message that had been given to them. So it was with those that first heard. So it was with the first readers of this gospel message… and so it is now with you. Like Mary, we are to ponder these things! We are to know that Jesus, who is the King of kings and Lord of lords, is God’s salvation born. Through him and only him, there is peace available between God and sinful humanity. So it is written, and so it is.