The Birth of Jesus
2 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. Luke 2:1-7
Here we have the story of Christmas in seven verses. Luke is a historian, focused on facts and leaving out all of the rich detail, but he incorporates enough to establish some key messages.
This is a historical event. The mention of historical detail that could be contested means that Luke is establishing this as a historical and not purely a religious event. Caesar Augustus and Quirinius were real people verified by other writers at the time. God is intervening in history, and something incredible is happening, the Son of God is entering into human history as a participant. The author of the story is entering as a character of the story. How can we recognise God’s activity in history?
This is a continuation of the story of God’s people. That the child is born in David’s ancestral home of Bethlehem fulfils the promise of God to King David: 2 Samuel 7:11-16 “The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: 12 when your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. 14 I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. 15 But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall endure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.” and Micah 5:2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” How much do we recognise the meta narrative of the Bible, the big story of the Gospel?
This is a story of vulnerable people. Mary and Joseph were pledged to be married and she was pregnant. This was a situation that was potentially full of shame. Interestingly, a census did not normally require the betrothed to be present. Mary went with Joseph. Why? Perhaps it was confronting to stay behind, physically representing a story that was confusing or beggared belief for others. Perhaps Mary had a glimpse of what it meant to be active in God’s story, as demonstrated in her magnificent song (1:46–56), and she wants to be where the action is. They are travelling, she is near birth and they are desperate for lodging. Many of us would never have been in the situation of wondering if we would find shelter, for the night. Little did the owner of the lodging know that he was providing the birthplace for King of Kings! How can we be sensitive to the needs of vulnerable people around us?
God enters in human form. “She gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” Eight words. So much more is involved in this vignette. I am a woman. I have given birth. I wonder at Mary in this circumstance. There is no mention of midwives. It is just Mary and Joseph, facing together all the terror and wonder of birth. It is her first child. She has never done this before. And she is so young! They are in a strange place, having journeyed far. All the amazement and joy of knowing who she is carrying, is wrapped up in the labour and pain of giving birth. God enters human history through Mary’s birth canal. God in human form is pushed out naked and so vulnerable, wrapped in cloths and laid in a feed trough. Unlike the sanitised carols such as ‘Away in a Manger’, I am sure there were screams and tears. How tempted are we to sanitise Jesus in human form?
God is in control of everything. Even the most powerful man on earth, Augustus Caesar, is portrayed here as a servant in God’s plan. He has given his ruling, probably to ensure some extra income generation from tax, and to measure the extent of his empire being governed under Herod the Great. However, God is using it to fulfil ancient prophecies, to prove beyond doubt that this baby is his Son. He is working through the relationship of Mary and Joseph to provide a home for his Son. He is turning ordinary activities: traveling, lodging, birth, to fulfil his purposes. God is at work through everyday actions of everyday people. The difference between Mary and Caesar Augusta is that she is an active participant in God’s plan. How can we be aligned with God’s purposes?
Kara Martin is Project Leader with Seed, lecturer with Mary Andrews College, author of "Workship: how to use your work to worship God "and "Workship 2: How to Flourish at Work".