Luke’s account of the nativity of Jesus begins not with Mary and Joseph, not in a manger, nor even among shepherds (at least not yet), but in the distant center of Roman power: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus …” (Luke 2:1a).
Luke’s unique take on the nativity of Christ comes into sharper focus when compared with Matthew. Matthew’s account gets Jesus into Bethlehem by way of Joseph’s dreams. The Lukan narrator, by contrast, gets the holy family to Bethlehem through political and historical events.
Rome’s edict, and Jesus’ subsequent birth in Bethlehem, supply a context we might recognize more readily than the dreams of Matthew.
After all, it would seem imperial edicts are more common than the American dream. We live in a day of “executive orders” which send shock waves through immigrant communities, fostering fear and insecurity in homes, tearing families apart, causing upheaval for local economies. Likewise, with the attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Or, more subtly but no less coercively, the rule of the market place, which insists on our collective obedience. Its truth (or dogma) is seemingly unimpeachable.
Our emperors may be different, but their decrees often have the same effect, enforcing quick (often mindless, frequently joyless, even fearful) compliance. Joseph complies, almost like showing up for jury duty: “So also Joseph went up…” (Luke 2:4a). By contrast, Luke introduces Jesus’ birth as a liberating Word in a world too often registered (or manacled) by the executive orders of the powers. The decree of Emperor Augustus applied to “all the world” (1b) — it was, in the Greek, a dogma or, in this context, a decree (as in the NIV), ordinance, decision, or command. The NRSV renders it as an edict: an utterance carrying the force of law.
However you render the word, it includes the sense of a binding resolution. It does not, in this case, give peace or joy, but in fact, unpleasant upheaval. Perhaps this, in part, explains Luke’s intent in underlining the fact that Mary was very pregnant — travel, even the most important, is suspended late in pregnancy. Except this God is to be one “born on the road.”1
Reading Luke as if he were only a historian will obscure the burden of this text, which isn’t so much to do with history as such as it is do with the gospel event occurring in history and as an alternative to the “edicts” that seem to reign over history. Culpepper offers up the possibility that Luke conceives this birth story with the words of the psalmist in mind: “The Lord records, as he registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there’” (Psalm 87:6).2 Salvation history, then, constitutes the purpose of Luke.
Pastorally, we might ask, “What edicts compete for our sense of life and its meaning? Who issues those edicts? How do we distinguish the good from the bad? Could it be a case of dogma versus doxology?”
To the last question, I would say, maybe. I wouldn’t want to overextend wordplay here, to denigrate all dogma, but the contrast between the dogma of principalities and powers and the angelic song of doxology (or doxos) is striking: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14). Unlike the orders and edicts of Roman power, this doxology includes “no verbs or articles [to] clutter this joyful song.”3 It gushes with praise for God’s peace, already arrived in the birth of an infant unknown to Rome.
Who knows the source of this doxology? Those who work under cover of night, the shepherds. Although our children make adorable shepherds for nativity plays in church, shepherds weren’t regarded as cute in their historical context. Rather, they were viewed as shiftless, dishonest, and were known to graze their animals illegally.4 Perhaps that’s why they were grazing their animals at night, trespassing in someone else’s pasture! In any case, they weren’t part of the “registered” economy but marginal players, at best. And yet, marginal as they were, God elected these ones to hear the angelic announcement and song of the good news of God in Jesus Christ (Luke 2:10-14).
Think of those who work at night or in economies not sanctioned by the powers: do they see God more clearly? Could it also be that the shepherds were illiterate? They’re not the magi of Matthew, people given to “studying” the stars. At most, they gazed dreamily at the starry host of heaven. Even so, they experienced God that night, far from the media scrum of imperial Rome. They responded by talking to one another and then, in the King James Version, “hastening” to Bethlehem to “‘see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us’” (Luke 2:15b).
It’s almost as if the uncreated light of angelic doxology has become the “wind” or the cause which swept up these invisible workers into visible evangelists of God’s coming in Christ (Luke 2:17b). Mary, for her part, continues in a different, though still related, spirit: she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Luke gives plenty of context for the birth of Jesus, from the edicts of Rome, to the compliant journey of Joseph and Mary, to the shepherds, and their response. Ironically, Luke narrates Jesus’ birth in just two verses, 6-7. Sometimes significance wears the disguise of brevity. In this case, Luke disguises the significance of Jesus’ coming in the images of animal’s stall, the manger, the bands of swaddling cloth.
Ambrose suggests its significance: “He was a baby, a child; so that you may become a completed mature person. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that you might be freed from the bonds of death. He was in the manger, so that you may be [at] the altar.”5
Perhaps our stories of our infancy in Christ are, in a way, our response to the deeper register of God’s love and justice in Christ. We see under cover of night. We hasten in joyful anticipation. We rejoice without apology. We ponder wonderful things, full of mystery. We experience ourselves as a people liberated from death’s edict and wrapped in the peace of God that passes all understanding.
Even as worldly edicts continue, even as the manacles of death constrict, even under cover of this present darkness, people of faith are bold to sing, Gloria in excelsis Deo!
1. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke” in New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 67.
2. Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke” in New Interpreter’s Bible, 62.
3. Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke” in New Interpreter’s Bible, 65.
4. Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke” in New Interpreter’s Bible, 65.
5. Quoted by David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), 37.
We celebrate with you the birth of your son, and together we sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among people!” Amen.
Silent night, holy night ELW 281, H82 111, UMH 239, NCH 134 Away in a manger ELW 277, 278, H82 101, UMH 217, NCH 124 Joy to the world ELW 267, H82 100, UMH 246
While by my sheep, (trad. Ger.)