Someone said to me recently: “Of course, I’m a Luke 2 traditional Nativity kinda guy.” My (rather mean) response was, “I’m a traditional Mark 1 Christmas kinda guy.” Because, of course, Mark doesn’t mention Christmas at all. But the Luke comment is apposite. Luke sets out the stall of his presentation of the story of Jesus like a straightforward historian who has examined all the available sources and put everything “in order” (as he puts it) and consequently, much of what happens in our “traditional nativity” plays comes from his gospel account.
I use the word “much” because though Luke draws the main outline, we insert slices of Matthew into the mix too, with a few bits of stray much later additions. So, for example, we have the shepherds from Luke’s story, plus the Magi from Matthew’s and we add the totally bogus info from a Victorian hymn about “three kings”!
One of the problems is that we miss the story that Luke is attempting to tell. For he has a particular voice, and to be faithful readers of the Bible, it’s important to listen.
For a start, in total contrast to Matthew’s narrative, which tells the story from Joseph’s point of view, Luke tells it from that of Mary. It’s a daring choice of stance, in a day when women were not even permitted to bear witness in a court of law. And yet, it is part of the whole story of Luke’s gospel presentation, to show the role of women and their importance and value within the kingdom of God. And, even by itself, just here in the birth narrative, it’s a powerful counterpoint to Matthew.
It’s not that one is right and the other wrong. It’s that together they produce harmony and balance. And that’s what we miss when we just tell our standardised nativity narrative and miss the nuance. We make a Happy Meal when God has prepared an A La Carte Gourmet Special.
But there’s much more. Take a look at Luke 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…”
The opening words “In those days” bring notice of a pivotal dramatic moment. The scene is set in Galilee, not Rome and Jerusalem, in the power bases of Gentile and Jew. Luke loves pulling surprises.
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.
And don’t miss the point of the bald birth announcement. He is firstborn – he fulfils prophecy, which confirms Mary’s announcement and so claims the one thing Joseph has to offer – the first son’s birthright as a member of the house of David.
And Luke carefully crafts the birth of Jesus to parallel that of his cousin John to make another point: we are enabled to experience the intimacy of family and the inner workings of a devout Jewish community celebrating John’s birth. That’s the microcosm. But the other side -the macrocosm- is expressed by comparisons to the universal and cosmic responses to Jesus’ birth by angels and shepherds…. That is to say, redemption is not merely for one ethnic group, but for all creation. It’s “glad tidings” to the ends of the earth.
No words are wasted and no side issues are cluttering up Luke’s narrative drive. Instead Luke shapes the political context with the promise of Israel’s deity. Sacred confession is mixed in with societal conflict. So the announcement of the arrival of prosperity is not made to the governor or the Emperor, but to peasant shepherds; not to elected officials, but hired hands. The Upside-down kingdom is being inaugurated.
The Governor’s census locates the birth in Bethlehem, but rather than a demonstration of Quirinius’ control, Luke narrates this as the achievement of God’s promise from Micah 5:2. All the echoes of politics and religious culture merge as the listener negotiates the promise of good news between the Greco-Roman world’s imperial cult and Isaiah’s vision of the coming of the Lord to bring salvation and establish his dominion of peace.
In a time of political posturing and an inequitable economic system, the gravitas of the impending promise is laid against the existing chaos. How wide will this the peace spread? Who will receive its benefits? Luke blurs the holy with what is ordinarily human, to announce the presence of God with us. As we retell the story today, we have to think about that – think about the powerful juxtaposition of God and politics, oppressive power, refugees, borders and God’s panorama of peace. It’s as ugly and as relevant as that. As G.K. Chesterton put it: “Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
And Buechner struck the same note: “For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.”
For we are homeless too, till we find our home in Him.
What God does “for us” always arises out of a covenant to be “with us” always. God with us is not a political promise to provide “for” a balanced budget over the next decade. God is with us in the present now: “with” those in poverty, the forgotten, and oppressed. Like the shepherds, we are witnesses to the presence of God among us.
And when we see what God is doing, we are summoned to replicate, to go and likewise do. Luke prepares us for such corresponding behaviour by demonstrating the hopes of Israel in the drama of the birth of both John and Jesus. He draws the parallels, underlines the normalness of it, claims a constant supernatural imprimatur and flags up the inclusive nature of the divine promise that extends goodwill to all. With this narrative move, Luke expounds John’s ministry as focused on Israel while Jesus’ ministry fulfils Israel’s universal purpose.
The ancient story Luke recorded is dramatised in the church’s witness today. We must become ready to understand that our celebrating the birth of Jesus in this global seasonal holiday extends the drama narrated by Luke. The story continues in our lives and in our witness.