A Provocation: Christmas: December 25, 2018: Luke 2:1-21

1 It happened in those days: 
there came a dogma
from Caesar Augustus:
All the civilized world!
Be registered!
2 (This first registration happened
while Kurenius was ruling Syria.)
3 They were walking,
all families,
to be registered,
each into its own city.  
4 Joseph also went up
from Galilee
out of the city of Nazareth
into Judea
into city of David,
which is called Bethlehem,
because he was out of the house and clan of David,
5 to be registered with Mariam
the one courted by him,
the one who was pregnant.  
6 It happened when they were there,
the days were filled,
the days of her bringing forth,
7 and she brought forth her son,
the first born,
and wrapped him up
and laid him in a manger,
since there was not for them a place in the guest room.
8 Shepherds there were in that region
living in the fields
and guarding a guard
during the night
over their flock.  
9 A messenger of haShem stood by them.  
Glory of haShem shone around them.  
They feared a great fear.  
10 He said to them,
the messenger did:
Stop being afraid.  
For look,
I announce to you a great joy
that will be to all the host:
11 Brought forth to you
is a deliverer
who is meshiach haShem
in the city of David.  
12 And this for you the sign:  
You will find an infant wrapped up
and lying in a manger.  
13 Suddenly it happened:
With the messenger
a full army of heaven praising Elohim
and saying:
14 Glory in the highest to Elohim,
and on the land peace
among approved people.  
15 It happened
as they went away from them into the heaven
the messengers,
the shepherds kept saying to each other:
Let’s pass through up to Bethlehem.
Let’s see this word,
the one that happened
the one that haShem informed us about.  
16 They went quickly.
They found Mariam;
they found Joseph;
they found the infant,
lying in the manger.  
17 When they saw,
they informed concerning the word,
the one spoken to them concerning this child.  
18 All those who heard were amazed
concerning the things spoken to them
by the shepherds.  
19 Mariam preserved everything,
all these words,  
pulling it all together in her heart.  
20 They returned,
the shepherds did,
while they glorified and praised Elohim
regarding all that they heard and saw,
just as it was intimated to them.
21 When they were filled,
the eight days of his circumcising
and it was called,
his name,
the name called by the messenger
before he was conceived in the belly.

A Question or Two:

Isn’t it strange that Rome exercises its vast power in this scene, and its only real effect is to bring Jewish families back together? I don’t think that’s what they had in mind, do you?

Some Longer Reflections:

There are many things to hear about this scene.

It matters that you notice that there is no “inn” in this scene, no overbooked motel. It matters that you notice that this is, therefore, not a story about rejection. It is not a story about a lonely birth, a mother and child abandoned.

The room that is full is the guest room. The baby is born amongst the animals that support the family, and laid in the manger, which would have been in the lower level of the family house. This is Joseph and Mary’s family. When they arrive, the guest room is already full of other members of the family, so their family welcomes them into the only place left: a manger in the enclosure that houses the honored animals. Town kids might think of this as smelly and dirty. Farm kids know that animals carry the aroma of a secure income.

It matters that you notice the Names of God in this story: two of them. The one, Elohim (usually translated into English as “God”), names that aspect of God that holds the world in regular, reliable order. That is the God that even Gentiles can recognize by paying careful attention to the world that God made. The other Name, haShem (translated in English bibles as LORD, all in caps), is used according to the rabbis to name the Mercy that God acts out in loving, nurturing, and choosing. This is the God that the Jewish people know, the God that Jews preserve knowledge of for the sake of an exhausted world.

It matters that the storyteller stops to make sure that we notice that Jesus is circumcised. Jesus is Jewish. That is why the Names of God are Jewish names. That is why I have translated the world “messiah” from Greek into Hebrew. This is a Jewish story. Hating Jews means hating the messiah. Just saying.

But the thing that struck me this time as I read the scene again is the word I translated as “as it was intimated to them” in verse 20. Most English translations miss it altogether, rendering it as “as it had been told to them.” This misses an important point. The word in Greek is ελαλήθη, which comes from the word λαλεω. This word refers in its metaphorical origins to the babbling of baby birds that share the same nest. It is used to render warm speech between people who have known and loved each other for a long time. Listen to a grandmother talking to her toddler granddaughter. Listen to an old married couple whose lives are some warmly wound together that they breathe and speak and act in deep unity. Listen to a young man who thinks he might just have met the husband he will marry. Such tender moments lend to language a kindness, a delighted warmth, that is distinctive.

When you consider this scene, you can surely imagine the speech around the manger this way. But the storyteller has done something even more interesting than that. The things that were told to the shepherds were told them by angels. And the storyteller uses the word λαλεω for this telling. Imagine the angels “intimating” the news to the shepherds, talking to them in the secret language of tender love, talking to them like a grandmother.

Happy Christmas, indeed.

2 thoughts on “A Provocation: Christmas: December 25, 2018: Luke 2:1-21

  1. Dear Richard,

    Thank you, as always, for your provocations, and a special thank you for these Advent/Christmas reflections. I so appreciate the ways you play with the story and coax, tease, cajole new insights through your translations. As I prepare to preach on Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting, I think of the exploration of holy breath for which you served as a midwife at the NBS Festival Gathering in 2017.

    Shalom and blessings to you in this season and beyond.

    Liz Bidgood Enders

    On Tue, Dec 18, 2018 at 11:20 AM provokingthegospel wrote:

    > richardwswanson posted: ” 1 It happened in those days: there came a dogma > from Caesar Augustus: All the civilized world! Be registered! 2 (This first > registration happened while Kurenius was ruling Syria.)3 They were walking, > all famil” >


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