Christmas Day 1/2: 25 December Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20
My ears recall young readers stumbling over Luke’s political detail which begins this passage: ‘a decree from emperor Augustus..when Quirinius was governor of Syria’. The story is simple enough, once you get to it – wonderful – but why these lines which must be so practised beforehand? Luke relates the story to real history. That is Luke’s interest. He earths the events, even if here he is probably not so well informed. The best evidence suggests that Quirinius was governor of Syria nearer to 6 CE when there was also a census, though not a world wide one, whereas elsewhere (3:1-2) Luke indicates, as does Matthew, that Jesus was born near the close of Herod the Great’s reign in 4 BCE. The discrepancy need not bother us. Compared with historians of his time Luke’s combination of verisimilitude and historical accuracy does us very good service – but hardly the material for a Christmas day homily!
Yet the story of the baby wrapped in clothes and laid to rest in an animal’s eating trough – all from verse 7 – needs a context. These few details have cried out for expansion and not in vain. ‘No room in the inn’ – we imagine the local hotel. ‘In a manger’ – what’s a manger, mummy? ‘In a stable’ – like they used to have in rich houses before garages and carports? And soon we see the shepherds and the wise men in bent stature, sheep nodding wisely, donkeys, cattle, goats and doves – the Christmas scene is complete. And why not! Historical reconstruction is also imagination.
A ‘manger’ is where they put food for the animals to eat, my child. 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. ‘What kind of bathroom did they have, daddy?’ – none, of course, they had to make do. ‘That’s not very nice.’ – No, it’s not.
So behind the romance of the ‘stable suite’ of the modern Christmas card is Luke’s one verse scene of basic simplicity, poverty – well, as most, then, would have reasoned, with a little money Joseph could have bought them into a better space. ‘Blessed are the poor, the meek..’ These are the people who (still) cry out for redemption, liberation, peace, their inarticulate cry, a mere whimper beside the loudly proclaimed peace of Rome. By force and efficiency, the conquering Romans had brought the famous pax romana to their world, which included Palestine and their emperor was hailed a ‘son of God’. Law and order at last, sustained by ruthless suppression of people’s rights.
That is why Luke must have the reader stumble over officialdom to get to the story. For here is a different kind of ‘son of God’, a different kind of peace. Luke’s scene in verse 7 is a subversion of common human value systems. This scene at the beginning does what the cross will do at the end: a crown of thorns will mock the arrogance of the rulers, a life poured out will hang in contrast to those who suck out the goodness and strength of the people. Little wonder there is an implicit conspiracy to suck out the power of the Christmas story and render it a celebration of giving and mostly receiving wealth.
Luke moves on to the shepherds, a common image for rulers in the ancient world, an echo also of David, the shepherd king, in his town of Bethlehem. One simple way to portray divine transcendence was to speak of angels. God is saying something in this story. There is a peace! It is a peace only possible where God as the God of compassion is acknowledged, for God’s pleasure is not that of the tyrant but that of the generous giver. This is to be celebrated in song, in dance, in liturgy, in living! In verse 12 the angel repeats the all important detail of verse 7. This ‘saviour .. Christ/Messiah, Lord’ is down with the least. The same detail comes again in verse 16. A counter saviour is born, a counter ‘son of God’, bringing a counter ‘peace’ – for a counter people.
If Luke means us to guess what Mary might have ‘pondered in her heart’ (2:19), he has given us already a wealth of information in Mary’s song (1:46-55). God has lifted up the lowly, has remembered the poor. In moments of our own deeper truth we can also find ourselves facing our raw humanity, facing our own poverty, stripped of our shining garments and clad in just the basics. Then the angels are there for us. They are always there for us. And we know ourselves in solidarity with the saviour of the world as our saviour. And we know ourselves in solidarity with all who have no peace in the world’s order of peace. And we know that in this new peace there is a place for all.
The eucharist is a strange kind of eating trough. But the end is as the beginning and the beginning as the end.
Epistle: 1. Christmas Day 2: 25 December Titus 3:4-7
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