“Christmas according to Luke”
The Third Sunday of Advent (December 16, 2018)
We continue with our Advent series, “Christmas according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” The First Sunday of Advent we explored Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth with its emphasis on Joseph’s role in the story and the hope of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Last week Mark didn’t give us a birth story at all, or really any other story from the life of Jesus until he was a full-grown adult on the verge of his ministry, but instead begins with the abrasive figure of John the Baptist. Today Luke takes a “deep dive” into the birth of Jesus with the part of the Nativity scene we’re more familiar with, probably. Even though it’s familiar, let’s see if we can hear it in a new way.
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 while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When 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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Monday a week ago, a professor of New Testament at my alma mater posted an article on Facebook. “Shared this last year. Sharing it again,” she typed. The title of the article? “Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable.” It seems it was that time of year again, the time when very gifted, brilliant scholars like Dr. Aymer remind us that we have to pay close attention to the text in front of us and try to perceive it in its own cultural setting, even if that means excavating layers and layers of cherished traditions in order to get to the real artifact.
The article was written back in 2014 by a theologian in the United Kingdom. He cited yet another scholar, an expert on the Bible and Middle Eastern culture. He conducted precise studies of some Greek words. He drew diagrams of First Century Palestinian homes. But what it all boils down to is this: more likely than not Jesus wasn’t born in a barn, but in the home of relatives.
“Thanks, Bart. You’ve officially ruined Christmas! But I’m still keeping my Nativity scene!
The point the author tried to make is this (and I quote him):
The problem with the stable is that it distances Jesus from the rest of us. It puts even his birth in a unique setting, in some ways as remote from life as if he had been born in Caesar’s Palace. [That’s] the message of the incarnation… that Jesus is one of us. He came to be what we are, and it fits well with that theology that his birth in fact took place in a normal, crowded, warm, welcoming Palestinian home, just like many another Jewish boy of his time.
That’s what Luke does with his version of the birth of Jesus: locate God in the ordinary. He sets the stage in history: “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 while Quirinius was governor of Syria…” He sets the scene within everyday family life, with betrothed couple expecting a child, traveling to the father’s ancestral home. Luke wraps Jesus in strips of cloth; what else would you wrap a baby in? The angelic hosts herald the birth of the Anointed One to shepherds on the night shift who are doing what they do out in the fields. OK, fair enough, angelic hosts aren’t exactly part of our daily routines, but the recipients of their message were at a very low “rung” on the social “ladder.” Common folk.
Luke spills a lot more ink in his gospel situating Jesus among common folk, marginalized folk—people like women, tax collectors, Gentiles, sinners, leppers, people possessed by demons, those who are poor, those who can’t see, those who can’t walk. Luke tends to emphasize Jesus’ human qualities. And it’s in that gospel alone that we get Jesus’ most relatable parables. Stories like a child rebelling against a parent, running to a faraway place, only to be welcomed back home with open arms. Stories like a man getting mugged and beaten, only to be nursed back to health by an unlikely agent of compassion—a foreigner, an enemy. Jesus is down-to-earth in Luke’s gospel, in every sense of the phrase.
That’s the point of the birth story, really. That’s the theological beating heart of Christmas: God taking on the skin and bones, the grit and grime of life. Divinity assuming humanity for the sole purpose of being with us in our ordinariness. Love going to great lengths to be part of what we see and touch, think and feel. Holy Spirit breathed into flesh.
A few year ago the journalist Krista Tippett wrote an article, “Why I Don’t Do Christmas.” She had a few good reasons: the obligatory gift-giving; the kitchy sentimentalism of it all; the commercialism, among others. “Here’s what I take seriously,” she wrote:
There is something audacious and mysterious and reality-affirming in the assertion that has stayed alive for two thousand years that God took on eyes and ears and hands and feet, hunger and tears and laughter and the flu, joy and pain and gratitude and our terrible, redemptive human need for each other. It’s not provable, but it’s profoundly humanizing and concretely and spiritually exacting. And it’s no less rational — no more crazy — than economic and political myths to which we routinely deliver over our fates in this culture, to our individual and collective detriment.
The claim of the incarnation, of God becoming human, is something many of us (myself included) struggle with for any number of legitimate reasons. But it is a compelling idea, isn’t it, that our Creator loves her creation enough to become one with it?
Even though it has been misinterpreted and used in countless ways to denigrate bodies, at its core the Christian faith affirms the “stuff” of earth. It insists that God takes on flesh, infusing the mundane with the sacred. That claim is meant to impress upon us the depths of God’s love and to inspire us to embody that same love in our own lives. As the writers at Enfleshed put it:
Come, O Come Emmanuel.
Take flesh in our hands,
that they might cook meals that nourish,
plant seeds that grow life,
create art that inspires,
touch tenderly bodies that ache.
Take flesh in our feet,
that wherever we may find ourselves:
sites of conflict,
places of peace,
we will be rooted
in the assurance of
our power and possibilities.
Take flesh in our voice,
that we might
call for the mighty to be torn from their thrones,
speak words of compassion and love,
and whisper “thank you”
to every source of beauty that upholds us.
Take flesh in our gut, in our bones, in our deepest places of knowing
that we might listen
to that which moves us without words,
to the wisdom of feeling,
to that which we have silenced
by the tyranny of reason.
Take flesh in our skin,
in every detail of these bodies,
that we might begin to honor
the holy we wear.
Take flesh in our eyes
that we might weep
tears worthy of
all that has been lost,
all that has been taken,
all that has been betrayed.
Take flesh, O God,
in our beating hearts,
that we might
keep fighting for collective life,
keep believing in divine possibilities,
keep loving despite our trembling,
keep turning towards each other.
Come, O come, Emmanuel.
May it be so.