Gospel (Christmas Midnight and Dawn): Luke 2:1-14, 15-20
Event, Revelation, Reaction
Is Christmas day a time of rejoicing (the Christ is born to us)? Or a time of relief (Christmas is finally over)?
The holiday season can be a mixed blessing. There are highs and lows. There are times of joy and times of stress. (Family gatherings around the holiday table can bring both!) No wonder most of us can bless and curse this season in a single breath.
The first Christmas was no different. Lows and highs. Times for stress and times for joy.
1-3 When Quirinius was governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus first ordered everyone to register in the area where their family came from. Anyone who lived outside that area had to travel to it.
4 -5 Joseph and his fiancé, Mary, left Nazareth in Galilee to get registered. Since Joseph was a descendant of King David, he and Mary traveled to Bethlehem in Judea which was the city of David. At the time, Mary was pregnant. 6-7 When they were there, Mary delivered her first-born son. She wrapped him strips of cloth and laid him in a feeding manger outside because they could not get a room in the guest lodge.
8 Just outside Bethlehem, shepherds lived in the fields. The night the baby was born, they were guarding their flocks. 9 Suddenly, an angel from the Lord stood before them and God’s glory shone around them. They were very, very afraid. 10 “Don’t be afraid!” the angel said. “Look! I have a message from God for you and everyone. People will rejoice when they hear it. 11 Christ the Lord, the Savior, was born today in the city of King David. 12 This is the sign God gives you. You will find a baby wrapped in cloth and laying in a feeding manger.”
13 Suddenly there was a huge army of angels. They sang,
14 “May God have glory in heaven.
May the people he blesses have peace on earth.”
15 After the angels went back to heaven, the shepherds keep saying to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and find out what happened. Let’s go see what the Lord told us about!” 16 They rushed over and searched until they found Joseph and Mary, along with the baby lying in the feeding manger. 17 Once the shepherds saw the family, they told them everything God said about the small child. 18 When everyone heard what the shepherds said, they were totally amazed! 19 But Mary quietly kept all these things in her heart like a treasure. 20 The shepherds returned to the fields. Along the way, they praised God for everything they saw. It was exactly the way they heard it from the angel.
This gospel can be divided into three sections: the birth of Jesus, the proclamation of his birth, and the visit of the shepherds.
Mass at Midnight
1 It happened in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus for all the inhabited world to have themselves registered (for tax purposes). 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius governed Syria. 3 All traveled to be registered, each into his own city. 4 Joseph went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, into Judea, into the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and clan of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, the one having been engaged to him, being pregnant. 6 It happened in the (time) for them to be there the days of her (time) to give birth were filled, 7 and she gave birth to her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guest lodge.
2:1-3 “register...registration...registered” Romans taxed property and commerce. This registration would have connected the property to the legal owner’s name. Hence, the purpose of the registration was to collect property taxes.
Historians dispute whether such a registration actually took place. Luke, however, wanted to proclaim the Good News, not merely report history. He had two themes he wished to advance. First, Luke wanted to place God’s plan (having Jesus born in Bethlehem to fulfill Scripture) within a historical setting. Second, he wanted to contrast two types of kings. On the one hand, there was the Caesar who wanted everyone registered so he could enrich himself with taxes on their lands. On the other hand, there was the Christ, the Savior of all, who was born within this mass registration. One king took with taxes. The other king gave as servant among the people.
2:3 “each into his own city” The city in question referred to the city where one’s extended family originated.
2:4 “city of David” Luke identified the ancestor of Joseph. The carpenter was from the house of David.
“house and clan of David” The two nouns emphasized Joseph’s origin.
2:5 “to be registered with Mary” As his fiancé, Mary was to be part of Joseph’s family, not her own.
2:7 “there was no place for them in the guest lodge” Tradition inferred the inns were full when Joseph and Mary arrived. Poverty and impropriety provided other explanations. Joseph was too poor to buy his way into an inn. Or the scandal of his unwed, but very pregnant wife was too much for the local populace.
Power can be exercised by taking or by giving.
As the note indicated above, Luke presented the birth of Jesus in the context of an empire-wide tax registration. The Roman Empire was based upon graft within a social structure of extended families. Anytime taxes were collected, everyone up and down the chain of command made money. But the family who made the most was the house of Caesar. A large percentage of every tax went into the coffers of the royal family. So, the decree throughout the “known world” (i.e., the Empire) was another way for the Emperor to flex his Imperial muscle and make more money.
Luke used this exercise of Imperial power to present a different kind of power, represented by the image of the loving, but lowly shepherd, like David before Samuel anointed him. The registration was a means to establish Joseph of Nazareth with the clan of King David. It was also the means to fulfill prophecy. The Messiah would be born in the city of David.
Luke wanted to take the comparison between the Emperor and the Messiah a step further. The birth and young home of the Messiah would scandalize proper society. His mother would be pregnant before her marriage to Joseph. His birthplace would be outside, among the farm animals and the elements. The birth scene lacked propriety. But, it also foreshadowed the mobile ministry of Jesus, whose message scandalized and who lived on the move and lodged under the stars.
The Emperor dwelt in his palace, fat on the monies took from his subjects. The Messiah was born in the cold from a mother pregnant out of wedlock. In this way, he revealed a God of giving, a God for those who had nothing left to give.
8 In the same area, shepherds were making the fields their home and keeping watch (as) guards over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord (suddenly) stood before them, the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they feared with a great fear. 10 The angel said to them, “Do not fear. For, look! I evangelize to you the great joy which will be for all the people, 11 that a Savior who is Christ the Lord was born today in the city of David. 12 This to you is the sign: you will find an infant having been wrapped in swaddling clothes and having been laid in a manger.” 13 Suddenly with the angel there were a great number of the heavenly army praising God and saying:
14 “Glory to God in the highest;
peace to men of (his) favor on earth."
2:8 “keeping watch (as) guards” The verb “keep watch” can also be translated at “guard.” The verb and its object have the same root in Greek. So the phrase could be translated as “guarding (as) guards.”
2:9 “angel of the Lord (suddenly) stood before them” The verb “to stand by” inferred a sudden appearance. The verb was used in the context of divine epiphanies.
“glory of the Lord” In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures used in the early Church), this phrase meant the presence of the Lord. Luke used the angel (another symbol for the Lord’s presence) to emphasize the message as revelation. God was speaking directly to the shepherds as he did to Moses on Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 16:10, 24:16, and 40:24-35).
2:10 “I evangelize to you the great joy which will be for all the people” The phrase inferred an official announcement of a royal birth. The message was for the all the people; the shepherds represented these “real people” Jesus came to serve (the poor, the outcast, the sinner).
2:11 “a Savior...was born today” Because the context of the revelation was at night (see 2:8) and because the Jewish day began at sundown, tradition has assumed Jesus was born at night, the same “day” of the angel’s pronouncement.
2:14 Notice the parallels in the construction of this verse: “Glory...peace,” “God...men of his favor,” “in the highest...on earth.” This construction reveals a poetic hymn structure.
With the birth of a king came a royal announcement.
A few things need to be kept in mind about royal birth announcements throughout history. First, The death of a monarch usually left a power vacuum, unless the successor was strong enough or unless a strong regent was appointed for a young heir. Without a strong leader, the kingdom could fall into civil war between various factions that desired power.
Second, the institution that insured power was the military. Whoever was to be the monarch needed the unquestioned support of the military. Without such support, chaos would reign.
Third, the place of power needed to be secured. This place was usually an urban setting. Since cities were centers of commerce, government, and religion, order within these cities was vital for social well-being.
Official announcements of a royal birth were more than a reasons for celebration. They were made in the cities (by town criers) with the assent of the military to insure the stability of the kingdom. These announcements were meant as signs of continuity and political purpose.
Why should we look at these “background” issues? With the death of Nero in 68 A.D., the last Emperor with a family tie to Julius Caesar also died. The end of his reign was marked by political instability and tyranny. With his own suicide and the murder of his royal relatives, there was no one to take his place. Instead, there was a year of four different emperors who were murdered in quick succession. Stability only returned when the army made one of its own Emperor in 69 AD. Vespasian, the hero of the Great Jewish Wars, ruled for ten years with the title “Caesar.”
Luke lived through that instability. Certainly that was on his mind when he penned his Infancy Narratives between 80-90 AD. But again he took the common wisdom and turned it upside down. Instead of an announcement of the Messiah’s birth in the city where it could put the power players on notice, the angel proclaimed the birth to some of the lowest in society: shepherds in their fields. The Good News was for outsiders who lived outside.
Luke did tip his hat to the social order with the assent of the heavenly army. Their praise of God insured the celestial order recognized their King. The Messiah was the Son of God.
Mass at Dawn
15 It happened as the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds kept saying (over and over) to each other, “Let us then go over to Bethlehem and let us see this thing, the (one) having happened, that the Lord made known to us.” 16 They went having hurried and (after searching) they found both Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. 17 Having seen (the sight), they made known (the news) concerning the word, the (one) having been spoken to them about this small child. 18 Everyone having heard wondered about the (news) having been spoken to them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary was keeping all these things, gathering (all these things) together (like a treasure) in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned giving glory to and praising God for everything which they heard and saw just as it was spoken to them.
2:15 “angels went away from them into heaven” The verb “to go away” implied return. So the translation could also read “the angels went back to heaven.” The clause itself was a transition between the revelation in the fields and the revelation of Christ in the manger.
The Infancy Narratives in Luke have some common threads. The proclamation of the Good News by the heavenly messenger was always meant with fear. But, confirmation of the event that was proclaimed was meant with joy. Both Zechariah (1:12) and Mary (1:29), as well as the shepherds, received the angelic message with fear. The announcing angel first bid calm, then proclaimed the “Evangelion,” the message of the coming Messiah. Zechariah (1:64, 67-80) and Mary (1:46-55) praised God in joy after the message and its fulfillment.
These verses of the shepherds mark the joy-filled movement of this cycle. Just as Mary traveled to Elizabeth to confirm the Good News of her pregnancy (1:39-40), the shepherds traveled to confirm the birth announced to them. Their proclamation spread wonder in the same way the Peter and Paul gained an audience in Acts. (Mary was the lone exception. She kept her silence in the presence of the male shepherds, just as a male dominated, gender segregated society expected. But, Luke used that silence as a means to demonstrate intelligent reflection, a trait society did not expect women to have!). In the end, they returned to their fields with joyful praise as believers.
What message has God given you this holiday season? Is it a burden or a cause for joy? (Or both!)
While every Christmas is a special time of the year, it is meant to be an event that give us insight and joy. It might be stressful, but if it is not joyful, we will feel the season was a waste. So, take the time away from the hustle and bustle. Emphasize with those under stress. But keep in mind the real reason for the season. Rejoice in the birth of the Christ Child. Savor that joy. And spread ithat joy to others.
Write down your stresses and joys of this season. Present that list to God with thanks. And have a blessed Christmas.