A Provocation: Christmas (Proper I): December 25: Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)

Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)

2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

2:2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

2:3 All went to their own towns to be registered.

2:4 Joseph 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.

2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.

2:7 And 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.

2:8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

2:9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

2:10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:

2:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

2:12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

2:13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

2:14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

2:15 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.”

2:16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

2:17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;

2:18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

2:19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

2:20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

A Question or Two:

  •  Just curious: why do you think the angels appeared to shepherds?
  • Was it because David was a shepherd?
  • Was it because shepherds were not judged to be trustworthy?
  • Or was it because the shepherds were out in the wilderness alone and the angels needed lots of sky for their appearance and song?
  • Just wondering.

Some Longer Reflections:

In Matthew’s story, Jesus is  born several years earlier, during the reign of Herod.  Luke has Jesus birth take place well after Herod’s death.  Which gospel is right?

Yes.

It does not matter how you answer this question, at least if you are asking about truth and accuracy.  Jesus was born some day, some year, some hour, apparently in Bethlehem.  It does not matter when it happened.  We could not settle that question even if we thought it was important to be correct.  It does not matter.

But it does matter that both Matthew and Luke tie the birth of messiah to actions of the Empire.

Matthew ties the birth to the genocidal rage of Herod (we will explore this scene next Sunday).  Luke ties the birth to Imperial pretense.

This is not the first time in the history of the world an emperor snapped his fingers and expected the world to jump and run. It will also not be the last. People who love power exult in being able to make people do whatever they want. Sometimes they exert this power just for revenge.  There might be a minority president-elect who drools when he thinks about revenge.  There just might be such a person.

But Luke’s storyteller is not too terribly impressed with Imperial pretense.

The main effect of the Roman order that made the world jump and run was to bring families together.  In particular, Rome guaranteed that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were in Bethlehem, wrapped in deep Jewish history.  Jesus and David are now tied together, and Roman power is undercut by its very demonstration of power.  Oh well.

 Also, there is no inn in this story.  

Period.  The word in Greek is κατάλυμα and it means “guest room” and it is full.  With families gathering all over the world, guest rooms will fill up.  It does not matter if the guest room is full.  After the guest room is packed with people, families make beds on the couch, and then on the other chairs.  People will be sleeping on the floor, maybe even under the coffee table.  And after all of those spaces are full, the family will get really creative.  Jesus’ family appears to live in an old-style peasant house, like a German Bauernhaus, with the family living on the upper level and the farm animals living on the lower.  The κατάλυμα might be full.  That does not matter.  Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are family, and they are not turned away.    

That is the rule, even for people dominated by an power-hungry ruler.

That is the rule, especially for families who resist.

There is always room for family.  

This matters.  If we were reading the gospel of John, then indeed “his own received him not.”  At least sort of.  But in Luke’s story, his own not only received him, they welcomed him, they sheltered him, and they saw in Mary’s pregnancy the promise of the future of the family.  Of course they would find a place for her and her baby, even if they had to improvise.  A manger will work as a cradle, in a pinch.  Roman power created the pinch.  Jesus’ Jewish family created the solution to the problem  

This is not the first time Luke’s storyteller has presented family as the well of strength, the cell of resistance, in the face of danger.  

When Mary first learned that she was untimely pregnant, she ran to her auntie in the hill country and Elizabeth (whose name indicates that God’s oath is trustworthy) welcomed her. This is also not the last time that family will provide the energy that resolves a scene in Luke’s story.  When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple (the stable Jewish center of the world) they are met by Simeon and Anna who play the role of grandparents in the scene.  And at the end of the story, the “daughters of Jerusalem” wail for Jesus as if he were their brother.  

In Luke’s story you can always count on family, especially when the pressure and the danger are unbearable.  With family, we can bear anything.  That is one of the main points of Luke’s story.  That is, in fact, crucial to the way Luke has chosen to tell the story of the messiah: messiah comes as a member of a family.  That family shares the work of turning the world right-side-up, which is the central task messiah must carry out. 

Luke’s story is complicated, to be sure.  Families are like that.  But even with the complications, it is still a story that surrounds messiah with a family that makes the story possible.

Of course there is room.

Notice, in passing, that Mary treasures all this.

Given the events of those few days (a long trip, a family welcome, a first birth, a flock of shepherds talking about a host of angels), that is not too surprising.  But Luke’s storyteller does not paint Mary as overwhelmed and dewy-eyed.  We are told that she “treasures” what the shepherds said.  The word in Greek is συνετήρει, which is a word for what faithful people do with the words of Torah.  Mary analyzes all that has happened; she meditates on all of this, and expects to learn essential truths from her probing meditation.

Mary also “ponders” what she has heard.  This word also is a word that indicates sharp-minded intellectual analysis.  The word is συμβάλλουσα, which is the root of the English word, “symbol.”  It implies that Mary sees a deep significance in the events of these few days, a significance that she will analyze and understand, no matter how long it takes.  

She did the same thing when Gabriel visited her.  On that occasion, she also analyzed what she heard, and the fruit of her analysis appears in her independently composed Magnificat, which I think reveals why she agreed to take on the risks of giving birth to the messiah.  The world needed to be turned right-side-up, and the powerful needed to be put down from their thrones, even if all this entailed real risks for Mary.  She knew what she was getting into.  

Now Mary is told stories of an army of angels.  She stops to analyze what this means, and to extrapolate what might happen next.

The storyteller, therefore, has set up a narrative problem for the audience.

A story that begins the way Luke’s story begins ought to end with a glorious victory.  Luke’s story will end with an ascension of Mary’s baby into the heavenly realms, to be sure.  But the world is not right-side-up.  And Mary would know this.

And presumably continue with her pondering.

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