The Birth of Jesus
We all know that the focus of Christmas, the very reason for our celebration, is that scene which we can picture in our mind’s eye. Mary and Joseph are bending over the manger gazing at their new-born son Jesus. But in telling the story Luke has us look somewhere else first:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken when Qurinius was governor of Syria.
A first sight Luke is merely being what he claims to be, acareful, diligent and thoroughhistorian. He has located the birth of Jesus, measured against other known historical events. The birth of Jesus does take place at a particular time. And to be sure it takes place in a particular place, as Luke points out, Bethlehem. This is an event that happens in our world. And it occurs within the sequence of events that make up our history. But Luke is actually making a stronger assertion. He is claiming that this is the moment that defines history. This is the moment against which all other history is measured against. 525 years after the event, a monk called Dionysius Exiguus counted back to the birth of Christ. And he set his calendar according to that date, calling it Anno Domini. The system was popularised for the use of historians by none other than St Bede. Now all of history is dated according to the event of Christ’s both. An acknowledgement, in most cases now inadvertent, that the event of Jesus’s birth is the event which determines history.
Neither Augustus nor Quirinius know anything about God. Who God is and what God wants and what God might do, does not form any part of their thinking. They do what they do for their own reasons. Augustus wants to know how many people their are under his power. He arranges for census so that he can control and tax his empire more effectively. Qurinius has his own role in the Empire’s administration, which at this point is to make sure the count is made in his corner of that Empire. His corner of the Empire happens to include Nazareth and Bethlehem. Neither of them have any thought for the individual lives which their decisions disrupt. They know nothing of Mary and Joseph or anyone like them. They are the kind of people who believe they have the power to make and shape history.
And yet what they determined, the history they shaped for their own reasons, moves Mary and Joseph to exactly the right place at exactly the right time. It is in Bethlehem that the moment arose:
While they were there the time came for her to deliver her child.
Luke isn’t the one to draw attention to it, but we know that this is exactly where the Messiah should be born. In spite of themselves Augustus and Quirinius become agents of God’s will. God accomplishes his purpose through them. Whilst men like Emperors and Governor may think they make and shape the world, that it is their decisions and their actions which determine history, the truth is, God is working his purpose out. Time and history belong to God. And he uses them to bring us to himself.
Luke the historian begins bypointing to the place historians look, to the great and the powerful But we know his story has another focus. In an abrupt turn about and a sharp contrast he draws our attention to an ordinary man, Joseph. From a town is so little account that someone could say of it “nothing good came from there”, Nazareth. And he indicates another unimpressive locality, though with symbolic meaning for some: Bethlehem. And he shows us the man’s pregnant fiancee Mary. What we see is that God works his purpose out, but does so, not with the great and powerful, but among the lowest and least. God acts not at the centre but on the margins.
In many ways this year has been unique. What has happened to us and to the world is like nothing that has happen before in living memory. Yet some things have remained unchanged. The assumption has remained that the powerful, particularly those leading governments are those ones who will determine the course of events. It has been assumed that our rulers and only they are in control and only they can lead us out of this and the other crises we are experiencing. And despite all the ways this year has been different, one thing has remained the same. The rich have continued to get richer, even as the majority have been forced to struggle economically. In a broader perspective this year has just looked like that ordinary history which Luke begins by pointing us to. If however we wanted to see God working his purpose out we would have to look in a quite different direction.
Perhaps the most touching scene in the story is one that isn’t recalled in the Bible. We fill a gap in the narrative with our imaginations. It is Joseph and Mary’s arrival in Bethlehem where they go from door to door and find there is no room for them in any inn. This places Mary, who is already marginalised, even further to the edge. She is compelled to have her child where the animals feed:
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and
Which draws our attention to an underlying theme of the whole gospel and of human existence. It forces us to recognise a feature of history as it is conventionally told. There is a lack of space for God. It is a theme that will find its climax at the other end of the story, with the crucifixion. When there is so little room for God that some try to force God out of the world altogether. Yet this is also the central point of the Christmas story. God is making a space for himself amongst us. God is present at the bottom and on the margins. God becomes part of our world and our history. God becomes like us, so that we might become like him.
The Birth of Jesus by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0