The Christmas Stories 7
7. THE BIRTH STORIES IN LUKE: GLORY AND PEACE
The scenes which surround the birth of the promised one are a commentary on its meaning. We begin first with the story of the shepherds.
Luke 2:8-20(8) And there were
shepherds spending the night in the area looking after their flock. (9) And
an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone
around them and they were quite terrified.
(13) And suddenly a mass of
heaven’s army was there with the angel and they were praising God and
saying, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth among his favoured
Perhaps the most beautiful of all the Christmas stories is the one about the shepherds and the angels in Luke 2:8-20. The Messiah, Son of David, is about to be born in Bethlehem, David’s own birth place. The shepherds remind us of the shepherd family of David. An angel of the Lord appears to them. They are engulfed in the brightness of divine glory and overawed. They hear tidings of great joy, great news for all the people. Their hopes and longings have been fulfilled. The Messiah has been born. The deliverer has come. He is the Christ, the Lord. The sign for the shepherds is the baby wrapped up in cloth and tucked up in an eating trough.
The curtain of heaven opens more widely. A chorus of angels celebrates the meaning of this new event. Glory to God! His worship and acclamation is the ultimate goal and fulfilment of life and uniquely so through the one who has been born. Peace on earth among his favoured people! The fruit of true worship is love flowing out from God and bringing peace and wholeness to his people and to the world. This is uniquely so in the life of Jesus and the ministry he begins among God’s people, which in turn sends them to the ends of the earth.
Our traditional Christmas cards usually render the angels’ words: “Glory to God in the highest. Peace on earth. Goodwill to men”. This proclamation in three parts depends on later less reliable manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and had thus found its way into the Authorized Version of 1611. The best Greek manuscripts have two parts. The second part is a proclamation of peace to particular people (not “men” alone!). It could mean: “to people of goodwill”, that is, individuals who express goodwill. But it almost certainly means people as a group and refers to God’s people, “the people of his goodwill”, his chosen people. This means Israel. In its immediate setting the proclamation refers to what Jesus will bring to the traditional people of God to whom he will be sent.
But for Luke, as for Jesus, the people of God is not racially or culturally defined. It includes all men and women who respond to the invitation to be his continuing people. Among people open to God’s grace and call, God’s peace will be known. Luke will later show how the mission of the church as God’s people is to take this word of grace and peace to the whole world.
As the angels withdraw into heaven, the shepherds agree together. They go quickly to Bethlehem, find the child, tell Mary and Joseph of their revelation and return to their fields, themselves now a chorus of praise to God for what had happened. In embryo the angels’ song had found its first fulfilment: glory to God and peace among his people.
The focus of the story is not the shepherds, nor even the heavenly appearances. It is the new-born child. The shepherds and the heavenly appearances serve to interpret and celebrate who Jesus is. Shepherds were sometimes a despised group. The story does not suggest that here directly. Certainly they represent ordinary people, not those accorded great status or deserving special privilege in the human community. To these the good news came.
The heavenly appearances are as though there is a veil separating the world of heaven and the earthly world; for a moment the veil is withdrawn. The shepherds on earth are caught up into the activities of heaven. They participate in the heavenly liturgy of praise. This is a powerful symbol which signalises that in Jesus Christ men and women would find themselves encountered by God. The vertical and horizontal meet in him. The deep divine secret of life breaks through. We are addressed in him with the Word of God himself. We are addressed in our ordinariness without our deserving and are drawn into his activity.
The emperor and the baby
(1) And it happened in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a universal census be carried out. (2) This census was the first and was undertaken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. (3) And all went to be enrolled, each to his home town. (4) And Joseph, too, went up from Galilee, from Nazareth, to Bethlehem, David’s town, because he belonged to the house and descendants of David. (5) He went to be enrolled along with Mary who had been contracted to him in marriage and she was pregnant. (6) And while they were there, her pregnancy had run full term (7) and she gave birth to her first-born son, wrapped him in strips of linen cloth and tucked him up in an eating trough, because there was no room for them in the over night shelter.
Luke has woven the beautiful story of the shepherds and the angels into his account of how Jesus was born. We have already seen how the dating offered in the first two verses and the census present major historical difficulties. The same must also be the case when Luke makes the census the reason given for Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem.
But however inaccurate the historical information in this or that detail, the wider impact of this setting is to highlight further significant dimensions in the meaning of Jesus’ life. The hopes expressed in the hymns, especially the Magnificat and the Benedictus, contained visions of challenge to the powerful, including the politically powerful. Rome was the political power and Augustus its symbol. Augustus was acclaimed widely as the bringer of peace and prosperity. Luke pictures the power maintaining itself through a universal census, It is as though the powers that be come onto the stage in full splendour and might. That is the political and social reality within which the drama of God’s people plays itself out.
Mary and Joseph, presented as ordinary people, not in poverty nor at all rich, must live within the Empire and follow its instructions. They travel together and Mary is highly pregnant. The story is told without direct reference to the wonders of chapter one. This may mean the account came into Luke’s hands in much the same form as it now has. Mentioning that Mary was Joseph’s espoused wife seems unnecessary for the reader who already knows chapter one. But it would have been necessary for the original story and Luke has preserved it. The story also makes no reference to the virginal conception, but Luke’s readers know and carry with them the hope and expectation of the earlier scenes.
The ordinariness of a woman pregnant on a long journey and a man forced to comply with the state’s demands is the counter scene to the great emperor and his flowing robes. In the ordinariness is sacred story which makes sacred every ordinariness of pregnancy, of femaleness and maleness, of living in the civic community. The divine glory engulfs the hillside of the shepherds in the following scene because here the unspectacular of human love and faithfulness journeys on.
The ordinariness reaches its climax in the birth. Mary gives birth apparently without complications. She wraps the baby, her first, in strips of cloth to keep him warm. Solomon describes a similar action in a legendary account of his birth (Wisdom of Solomon 7:4). Perhaps the echo of the line of David is intended.
Mary then puts Jesus in an eating trough. In towns like Bethlehem there was usually a shelter where travellers could spend the night. It had been full. Mary and Joseph had found a hollowed eating trough or large bowl used for animals housed overnight in winter. We assume they must have been in a stable area of some kind. Using the trough would avoid the danger of trampling by animals during the night. It would have been a practical solution and inoffensive.
Elaborations and expansions
Maybe Luke intended the eating trough to echo Isaiah 1:3 which speaks of oxen and asses recognising their master’s eating trough.
The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.
It is conceivable that early Christians telling the story would see here a subtle reference to the birth of the master of all and to Israel’s rejection. Certainly such a text stimulated the extraordinary expansion of Luke’s simple account which he has presented in a single verse. In part it may also have been logical deduction which gave us the stable scene with cattle and donkeys. Soon the sheep appear with the shepherds. The eating trough becomes a “manger”. As a child it took me a long time to discover the mysteries of that unfamiliar word!
Soon the star could be seen shining through the window. Doves perched on the window. The three kings stood solemnly by, bearing their gifts. The camels waited. The shepherds were reporting their experiences. The scene became alive with colour and an accumulation of costumed players. Modern ages added their tinsel and sweetness: the tree above, reindeer or maiden angels prancing on its bows, the smiling Santa Claus, coloured streamers or flashing lights to heighten the effect and piles of luring presents promising gain.
Frequently it is an aesthetic mess and it is easy to be cynical. The revelry has become so out of hand that what is celebrated is celebration and not Jesus at all, not his birth and certainly not his life, death and resurrection. The accumulations of devout piety and the romantic trivialisations of the western commercial world combine to create a party symbol before which to down excessive quantities of food and drink “Christmas cheer”.
That is harsh, but true as long as the elaborations we add to the story lead to the repudiation of its centre. Celebrations often serve or symbolise more the oppressive powers from which Mary’s Magnificat hailed liberation than they do the lowliness God favours. The emperor then regains centre stage. The story must not be abstracted from its Lukan context of good news for the poor, nor from the context of Jesus who gave himself for the oppressed, the marginalised, for all rich and poor who owned their poverty and need before God.
No less do the elaborations of piety fall danger to distorting the story’s centre. In earlier centuries devout, would-be gynaecologists contrived a midwife’s report that Mary’s virginity had remained intact after the birth. That would be the literal meaning of “virgin birth”. It does violence to the sacred ordinariness of Mary when in the name of piety she must be denied normal sexuality and womanhood in her future life with Joseph.
When the glowing auras and fanciful artistry of manger scenes must loom large in our vision, we fail the story’s own intent. It is not there primarily to entertain us with the beautiful, but to prepare us for the wandering carpenter whose body was broken in service to men and women in a real world. Unreality in the Christmas story spawns unreality in our understanding of Jesus. When that happens, Mary and Zechariah, Anna and Simeon, and Rachel in Ramah have cried out in vain.
But the stories in Luke are equally misjudged if we fail to see that they go beyond history. They offer and invite elaboration. They are sources of ongoing reflection and meditation. The birth scene painted in the single verse of Luke 2:7 is a powerful symbol. It evokes images and calls for expansion and exploration. There is a certain spontaneity in such elaboration which is not to be stifled by the anxiety that such freedom might distort. Such freedom might indeed distort, but unless it flows, many new creative insights may be lost. There will always be time to look again and to measure where impulses have distorted the focus or made the story less clear. Fear and cynicism are as much a block to the impact of the Christmas story as the misinterpretations which are the target of the cynic’s barbs.
The ordinariness of Luke’s verse must be allowed to remain. His scene does not depict abject poverty. Nor does it depict the romantic ideal of birth in the golden hay. Probably Luke intended symbolism in the fact that Mary and Joseph found no room in the normal overnight shelter. Does the child find room in this world? He finds room especially amongst the deprived and then on the cross.
Luke probably intends the ordinariness of the eating trough to be striking. It was a pragmatic solution. It was also lowly and doubt less symbolises the lowliness of Jesus’ ministry. We can enhance the image by elaborations which picture animals and smell the smell of animal ordinariness.
As Luke has told it, the scene contrasts powerlessness and deprivation with the powerful administration with which the chapter began. Here is a new model of universal lordship. Here is a new powerless power. Here is a new foolish wisdom. Here is God.
It is with a view to this scene that Luke goes on to the episode with the shepherds. They are informed by the angels of the birth of Christ the Lord. But they are not led to a scene of glorious splendour. It is not a stable transformed into a royal court with three kings as glorious courtiers and an enthroned glow about a baby’s head. It is the scene of the child in the eating trough in very secondary accommodation!
The angels’ words of glory and peace effectively give the baby a voice. What is here the message of the cloth-wrapped child is later the proclamation of the wandering preacher and the word of the one who was crucified and raised. It will become the church’s gospel. Separated from the ministry of Jesus, before or after, we can allow it to echo as fine music in the divine liturgy. But Luke’s story helps us to see it earthed. And the broader setting of chapter one with its hopes and expectations points us to a gospel lived out in the face of oppressive political and social realities among the least loved and those who cry for the coming of God kingdom of justice and peace. Such a meeting of divine love and earthy smells is the place of Christian revelation.
Israel’s saints acclaim the Christ
Luke 2:21-24(21) And when a week
had elapsed and the day came for him to be circumcised, they also named him:
Jesus, following the name given him by the angel before his conception.
In 2:21 Luke forges a link back to the episode in chapter one, in which the angel announces to Mary her miraculous conception and instructs her about Jesus’ name. As good faithful Jews who keep the Old Testament commandments, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to be circumcised (2:22-24). They offer the sacrifice of the ordinary people who cannot afford expensive alternatives. Thus they fulfil the Law as they are able. Luke emphasises this. In this way they are shown as remaining within the established line of sacred history which is coming to its climax.
The scene in the temple continues with the appearance of Simeon the prophet. He is painted in a way that reflects Eli who received Samuel (1 Samuel 1-2). The Hannah/Samuel model had been used before by Luke to describe John the Baptist and it is not impossible that Luke may have transferred his appearance from an account of John’s circumcision to the scene of Jesus’ circumcision, though this is quite uncertain.
For Luke, Simeon symbolises the righteous and faithful of Israel. Luke says that he was awaiting the day of Israel’s consolation (2:25). This belongs fully within the expectations voiced by the figures of chapter 1, who looked forward to Israel’s deliverance, often expressed in political terms, and hoped for a Messiah. Simeon had been assured that he would not die before the Messiah arrived. He was a man of the Spirit.
Simeon carries for Luke the weight of Israel’s line of prophets. He voices Israel’s hope. He incorporates its piety. He is led by the Spirit. When Luke describes how he took the baby Jesus in his arms, it is as though we see Israel’s appropriate response to the Messiah foreshadowed.
The Nunc Dimittis, his song of praise, continues to make him a symbol of the appropriate response of Israel. His dreams are fulfilled. He can die in peace. He has seen God’s salvation. The salvation has been prepared and set forth before all peoples. It is light for the nations of the world and glory for Israel itself. Luke’s ideal of the Jews’ response is for them to recognise in Jesus the goal of their hopes and the source of their salvation and the salvation of the world. In using the image of “light for the Gentiles” the hymn echoes Isaiah’s poem about Israel’s servant role (49:6). Simeon sees in Jesus the true representative of Israel’s role.
Simeon goes further. He announces to Mary that this ideal response will not be a reality. Jesus will cause great upheaval, a reversal of values, reminding us of Jesus' own words: the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Luke 13:30). Jesus will become a focus of rejection. This will happen because through Jesus light and truth will shine and secret manipulations of power and hypocrisy will be exposed and challenged.
But why does he say this to Mary and not to Joseph? Did Joseph die early? Was it because Joseph was not the real father? Simeon’s words also include the prophecy that a sword shall pierce Mary’s soul. This is not a prediction of martyrdom. It could reflect upon the pain of seeing her own son crucified, though according to Luke she was not present at the crucifixion. More likely it refers to the division Jesus and his word will bring to families, perhaps also Mary’s own (12:51-53).
After Simeon, the prophetess Anna enters the scene. Her description seems modelled on Judith the heroine of the book, Judith, of the Apocrypha, but belonging to the Greek Old Testament. Luke paints her as another symbol of true Israelite piety. She confirms Simeon’s rejoicing and identifies Jesus as the one to fulfil the hopes of “all who awaited the liberation of Jerusalem”. With these words Luke recalls the opening of the scene when he introduced Simeon as “awaiting the consolation of Israel”. The scene is complete.
Luke 2:21-40 probably owes much of its composition to Luke’s own hand. It is couched in his language and reflects his understanding of Israel and its response to Jesus. Within it we see Luke’s strong concern to underline continuity and fulfilment by deliberate echoes of biblical and post biblical models. Luke may well have known of a certain Essene called Simeon, active in the disturbances of 6 C.E.. Maybe Simeon came to him through Baptist sources. Judith stands model for Anna.
Throughout the scene there is a strong sense that the fulfilment has finally come. True rest is possible, not in complacent apathy or quietism, but in the awareness of trust that what God has begun here will bear fruit and does bring the salvation for which generations have longed. It is not therefore inappropriate that generations since have made Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis their own and gone to nightly rest in its confidence.
When Luke notes that all the Law’s requirements had been fulfilled by Joseph and Mary in Jerusalem, we can almost hear a choric response: “fulfilled indeed!” For much more than the provisions of circumcision have been completed. As in Matthew, so here in Luke, the birth stories end with the return home to Nazareth.
Nazareth lay in sight of Sepphoris, a city destroyed by the Romans in 4 B.C.E. because of an uprising. Jesus grew up with the issue of liberation on his doorstep! It is even possible that he and his father worked on the site as carpenters when it was later being rebuilt. He would address the issues of injustice in less violent terms, though he too would fall to Roman suppression.
Looking around Luke’s entrance hall
It is striking that Luke brings us into his gospel through these two chapters which are so dominated by Jewish hopes of radical, subversive change. In the hymns and the descriptions which accompany some of the key figures like Simeon and Anna we meet the yearning for the liberation of Jerusalem. Often such images have been treated as mere metaphors for the liberation Jesus brings to the individual soul, and their radical message has been lost. When we follow such themes through the gospel and into Acts we find, that on the contrary, these themes remain very much alive for Luke.
In Acts 1:6-7 the disciples ask Jesus whether this is the time when he would restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus’ response is not to rebuke them for following out worn hopes, but to speak to them about timing. The hope remains alive. Similarly when the two disciples on the road to Emmaus explain to the Jesus incognito that they had hoped he would bring liberation, Jesus replies not with a rejection of their hopes, but with teaching that suffering is also necessary.
Luke portrays Joseph of Arimathea in similar terms to Anna and Simeon as one looking for the kingdom of God – a good model. Luke’s picture of Jesus is of one who weeps about the suffering to come on Jerusalem and in his speech holds out the hope that after a period of trampling by Gentiles, its inhabitants could lift up their eyes and they would see their liberation with him as the leader coming in the name of the Lord. It is not surprising therefore that Luke pictures Peter responding to the crowd concern about appropriate response by calling them to repent and then holding out to them not only the promise of forgiveness, but also of the great restoration and refreshing which Jesus would bring as the Messiah.
In fact, it seems that Luke probably envisaged that future hope as a kingdom centred on Jerusalem with Jesus reigning as king. More significantly however, Luke indicated that some of that vision was already becoming reality in Jesus’ ministry and among those who shared his Spirit. To pray, “your kingdom come”, was to look to that future but also to take it on as an agenda and inspiration for the present. Proclaiming good news for the poor and hungry had to mean becoming good news for the poor and hungry in the present. Luke presents Jesus as telling his home synagogue of his mission, using the words of Isaiah 61:1, that the Spirit had anointed him to proclaim hope of freedom and to make freedom now in the present. Early Christians heard the echoes of hope expressed in Isaiah 52:7 about the messenger who brought good news, proclaiming God’s reign.
The language of the gospel, “good news”, “kingdom (which = empire in Greek)”, “peace”, “salvation”, happened also to be the language of imperial propaganda. Rome and its emperors claimed to being peace to the world – at a huge cost of human rights. Luke appears to be set out quite deliberately to promote Jesus as an alternative. In this he stands in a tradition going back to Jesus.
Luke’s entrance hall is something quite other than decoration. It is proclamation and sets the Christmas stories and, more important, the Jesus story, in the context of human yearning for change. While Luke imagined that having a future base in Jerusalem, he saw this in universal terms as something inclusive of all peoples. That radical openness commends itself as belonging to the heart of the gospel even if we, like other new testament writers, do not share his specific hopes about Jerusalem as a centre.
Luke’s was a way of handling prophetic hopes which, on the one hand, resisted a narrow Jewish nationalism which would alienate and abuse others and remain alive among some to our own day, feeding world crises and terrorism, and, on the other hand, refused to surrender faith’s vision of justice and peace to Rome and its successors and retreat into an individualistic piety bent on other worldly aspirations.
Parents and priorities
Matthew’s next scene after reporting Jesus’ return to Nazareth is the appearance of John the Baptist in ministry. But Luke, first, records an episode of the twelve-year-old Jesus. It shows an independent Jesus already aware of his unique role and a mother sternly reprimanding him for his behaviour. The story loosens the ties with the family so that the reader will not take the birth stories as implying Jesus’ dependence on family support.
It also releases Mary to be Mary, about whom Luke also knew traditions less idealistic. Mary is very human and natural in the story. She does not understand. But Luke bridges the gulf between her miraculous early experiences and her later failure to understand by painting her as one who nevertheless pondered what had happened in her heart, just as Luke reports she did after the coming of the shepherds. Perhaps Luke is also seeking an explanation for the relatively late appearance of the birth stories even though he would be fully aware that a good deal of their shape in his Gospel came from his own creative composition.
Jesus’ disciples would face the challenge not to be ruled by family priorities reluctant to let birth find its fullness in independence. Luke makes the point dramatically and provocatively. Such disobedience and disregard would be offensive in the extreme in Luke’s day. Jesus, the Jewish boy, at the threshold of Jewish manhood, asserts a higher obedience. Later ages would know the bar mizwah when the twelve-year-old took on the full obligations and privileges of the Law.
Perhaps Luke means us to reflect that this business of his Father’s would lead Jesus to another Passover Feast, where the wonder would turn to hate and his own would abandon him and even those who knew and know him best would not understand.
* * *
The Christmas Story never really ends. Analyses and explanations end. Expositions end. But the power of the story is its creativity. It opens itself to us and opens us to ourselves and to our world. It is a rejoicing that invites us to joy. And it is a murmuring of pain and crying. It enlarges birth itself and somehow also creates new life in us if we allow the meeting to take place. My reflections are part of my meeting, born from my meeting with the story as I have written these pages. I share them for the joy of their retelling.