1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph 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. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged, and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child, 7and 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.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified, 10but the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
15When 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.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, 19but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English Edition) alt, used with permission.
In most cases the passages of scripture selected for reading as part of a church service are extracts from a much larger whole. When an extract starts with “In those days”, “In that region”, or any of the multitude of beginnings which depend on previous text for their sense, I wonder why an effort is rarely made to provide us with the setting, so we know the context for the story. Some years ago I was training people to read set passages, and gave them a challenge. With just one name changed to a pronoun I read the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus and asked them to listen as one who had never heard the story before, and to raise a hand when they could identify the main character. No-one raised a hand. If that happened with people who are already connected with a church how can we expect newcomers to church to understand what we’re talking about without the context being set?
Luke claims that the emperor Caesar (in classical Latin pronounced Kaiser, not seizer) Augustus initiated the first registration of everyone in the Roman world at a time when Quirinius was governor of Syria, and that was the reason for Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem. Given that the wise men, in Matthew’s rendition of the birth story, asked Herod for guidance to get to see the new-born King of the Jews, there is a significant problem with Luke’s information. Of course, a thorough investigation of Luke’s attempt to date-stamp the birth of Jesus, written well over half a century after the event, only goes to show that scripture is theological ahead of being historical in our sense of accuracy of details such as dates. We miss the point of the birth and its significance for the world if we try to confirm or contradict details of timing in Luke’s narrative.
It’s easy for us, in the 21st century and where it’s not unusual for a woman to be pregnant before being married, to overlook the importance of Joseph’s support for Mary. Matthew 1:19 tells us that Joseph was planning on “dismissing” Mary because he was unwilling to expose her, not him, to public disgrace – as if the developing pregnancy would not be noticed – but his intention was changed after a visit from an angel. In those days a pregnancy before marriage would have brought disgrace for both parties, but if the man disappeared from the relationship early enough he might escape because she had been unfaithful – isn’t “she” always the sinful one? What’s that lump in your throat called, Adam? Joseph showed strength of both character and faith by sticking with Mary in the lead up to Jesus’ birth.
If we think that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” what might we think of the location of Christ’s birth? All the good places in Bethlehem were occupied by the time Mary and Joseph arrived, so they had to occupy a stable, with the animals around them and the smell of their feed and their urine and faeces. This was no place of cleanliness in terms we humans think of it, especially these days. It was no royal palace, fit for a king on our human scales, but an indication of Christ’s connection with the poor and with every living thing.
‘There were shepherds, abiding in the fields, watching over their flocks by night’ – sorry, I’ve sung Messiah so many times that quotes are inevitable. Our Christmas celebrations are centred on a date close to the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice, which is a time of intense cold, snow, and plenty of cloud cover. That’s certainly not a time when shepherds would be out in the fields at night, tending to their sheep: it’s a time when the sheep would be in barns or stables, protected as much as possible from the freezing conditions – and yes, it does get that cold in Israel! Even the Sahara desert got some snow recently. We don’t know the exact date of Christ’s birth; we don’t even know the actual year because when “Dionysius the Little” tried to calculate it, way back in the 6th century, he didn’t have the accurate information we have now. What we do know is that Jesus was born into a Jewish community and, later, showed his divinity as well as his humanity. As with many Christian festivals, the date was chosen to re-badge a pagan festival.
Angels come in various forms. Sometimes we don’t recognise them when they are vitally present for us, because we see just another human being. The film The Staircase tells the story of a real-life example of an angel providing a community of nuns in New Mexico with a staircase many believed was impossible, and disappearing without trace or payment as soon as it was complete. Have we been visited by angels in our lives, or, more particularly, have we been angels in the lives of others? The angels who visited the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem were no humans who walked into the shepherds’ lives and walked out again. In this case the appearance created fear and awe, and the experience was enough to stir the shepherds into action. Can we experience the birth of Christ in such as way that we are stirred into action to spread the Good News? Can we be so stirred by our encounter with the living Lord Jesus that we spend our lives rejoicing, and glorifying and praising God for what we have heard and seen. I hope so.