The readings for Sunday, December 25, 2016, Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Cycle A, are
Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; and Luke 2:1-14.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent, we experience the first of two “Birth Stories” in the Gospel of Matthew. Today, on the feast of the birth of the Messiah and Lord, (titles bestowed on him by the angel of the shepherds), we experience a very different story of the birth of Jesus. Luke stated in the preface of his Gospel that others had tried to narrate the story of Jesus, but he (Luke) would do so in an orderly way. He begins by placing the birth of Jesus into the political setting of the first Christian century. “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus….” Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, ruled the Empire from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. Due to the effort of this man the Roman world was at peace for the birth of the Prince of Peace.
What was decreed by Caesar? “…that the whole world should be enrolled.” “World” meant the Roman Empire. Much like some Americans today, the Romans considered themselves the “world.“ They took census as a basis for collecting taxes from their colonies. To register for the census, each man had to return to his place of origin, “each to his own city.” The head of the household was Joseph. Luke writes, “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, (in northern Palestine), from the city of Nazareth to Judea (in southern Palestine), to the City of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and linage of David.” There is a problem about the historicity of this census, but Luke’s introduction of the census has a defensive purpose (apologetics). By the time Luke was writing his Gospel in the eighties of the first Christian century, there had already been a major persecution of Christians in Rome under the emperor Nero. By showing the obedience of Joseph to a decree of Caesar Augustus, he defends the legitimacy of Christianity, as if to say, “Rome has nothing to fear from Christians.”
Luke has in mind another purpose for the Roman census. The Holy Family has to be brought to Bethlehem. The one whom the Gospels call “Son of David,” a royal prince who, in Christian interpretation of the Scriptures, was to be the new King David, must be born in the “City of David.” Therefore Luke writes, “…to be enrolled (in the census) with Mary his betrothed, who was with child.” The birth in Bethlehem follows, “and while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered.” Luke’s next sentence is filled with Old Testament theology, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Mary wrapped her firstborn son in swaddling cloths. These cloth bands are not to be understood as a sign of poverty, for even King Solomon was said to have been “nursed in swaddling cloths,” Book of Wisdom, 7:4. Swaddling was not a substitute for diapers. People did have diapers in those days. They were made of rabbit skins and stuffed with moss or straw or hay for absorption. The purpose of swaddling seems to have been to ensure the straight growth of the baby. Mary merely did what any Jewish mother did for her child after its birth. Then “She placed him in a manger…” Other than the possibility of this being a historical remembrance, is there any biblical significance to Luke’s use of manger? Maybe. Luke is writing eighty some years after the birth of Jesus. He is aware that Jesus was not accepted as Messiah by his people as a whole. Therefore we may see a reference to a Christian interpretation of Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows its owner and the ass knows its master’s manger, but Israel does not know. My people does not understand.” Thus ancient Isaiah contributed to the presence of the ox and the ass in our Nativity scenes.
“…because there was no place for them in the inn.” Not a motel in the modern sense, but rather a caravansary, an enclosed space where travelers in caravans could spend the night under one roof, something like a large pole barn without sides. That Jesus was born in a condition of homelessness may be part of Luke’s emphasis throughout his Gospel on God’s love for the poor and the outcast. The same can be said of the shepherds. The Good News is revealed not to kings and other royalty, but to lowly inhabitants of the Bethlehem countryside. As Luke will write of Jesus later in his Gospel, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…, to preach good news to the poor,”4:18. In Luke 7:22 the Lucan Jesus says of himself, “The poor have the Gospel preached to them.”