Luke 2:1–20 is the classic Christmas Story. It is part of our DNA as Christians. So how do we hear something new in this ancient, well-known text? I would suggest the place to start is with the child. Many Christmas songs include references to the child, “What child is this…”, and we are fascinated every year once again with the “babe in the manger.” But what is it about this child, whom Christians declare to be “God from God, light from light, true God from true God,” that should stop us in our tracks? Why does God choose to reveal Godself as a child?
Luke 2 opens with the adult male-oriented concerns of the emperor, and his registration and taxes. According to Luke’s version of the events, Joseph must travel to Bethlehem, his ancestral home, for this census. Though Luke does like historical markers, this is not a history lesson. Rather, this is the Roman social world in miniature: At the top of the hierarchy was the emperor (Caesar Augustus) and other elites (Quirinius, governor of Syria), those who supported the elites (persons such as priests and Sadducees), and at the bottom, the peasants, the largest segment of the population (Joseph, Mary, and shepherds). The passage progresses from the most powerful man in the Roman Empire to the lowest person on the social scale–a newborn child. In the process, it foreshadows the adult Jesus’ teaching about welcoming the child and the least being the greatest (9:48).
Because of the decree of the emperor, the peasant couple travels to Bethlehem. The place where Mary and Joseph look for lodging is not an “inn” in the sense of a public place of accommodation as in the parable of the Good Samaritan (pandocheion, 10:34). Instead, the Greek word katalumati describes an area in a private home. Most families had only a one-room dwelling, but between their living quarters and the animal stalls was an area for feeding animals and storing farm tools. Above this space was a loft where guests could lodge. Births often took place there, since it was apart from the center of family activities. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will ask his disciples to find a katalumati, where they could celebrate the Passover meal (22:11–12). However, in Bethlehem the room is already occupied when Mary and Joseph arrive, and instead they lodge in the lower area where the animals were fed.
Luke narrates the birth simply, “she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth” (NRSV 2:7). There are no labor pains, no midwives, and no blood or other bodily fluids mentioned. The announcement to the shepherds that they would find a baby wrapped in bands of cloth (2:12) was not at all remarkable, since all babies were swaddled. The note that the child was lying in a manager, however, might have been more surprising since that was not the usual place for a newborn child to be laid.
In the ancient world children were primarily valued for what they would become: a citizen man; a married, child-bearing citizen woman; an enslaved male or female adult; or any other “valuable” position one could occupy in the society. The low status of children was partly due to the tenuous nature of the child’s life. Life expectancy in the Roman world was between twenty-five and thirty years of age. That did not mean that most people died in their twenties; rather, many children died as infants: thirty to thirty-five percent of newborns never survived beyond the first month of life, and only fifty percent of all children reached the age of ten.1
For God to choose a child, an infant, to embody God’s incarnation was to choose the most vulnerable, dependent, and least likely body to survive in the ancient world. That begs the question: What does it mean that God became incarnate in a child? Indeed, at what point, does Luke consider Jesus to be divine? Is Jesus the incarnation of God only after the resurrection? Is Jesus God in flesh only after the crucifixion? Is Jesus God incarnate when he is tortured by the Roman soldiers? Is Jesus God in flesh while in the Garden of Gethsemane praying or sharing the last meal with his disciples? Is Jesus God enfleshed when he is preaching, healing, and performing miracles? Is Jesus God when he chooses his disciples and is tempted by Satan in the wilderness? Is Jesus God when he is a child, an infant in a manger?
Many of the common Christian titles for God are masculine images: Father, Lord, and King. These are also adult images. God, however, cannot be limited by our perceptions of either gender or age. Yes, God is father and mother, but God also came into the world as an infant. What is it about a child that might open us to a new view of God? When we read, “unless you change and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 18:3) we often conjure idealized images of children: trusting, innocent, faithful. But children are also growing, changing, playing, vulnerable, and moody. And at the least suggestion of injustice—“she got a bigger piece of cake than I did”—a child will cry out, melt down, and become infuriated over the inequality of the world. Is God like this? Is there a place in our world view for God to be changing, growing, playing, vulnerable, and moody? Does God cry out for justice at the smallest inequality in the world?
This notion of God as a child is not new. In 1989, Brian Wren wrote the advent hymn, “When God is a Child.” The refrain from that song summarizes well what it means to open ourselves to view God as a child:
When God is a child, there’s joy in our song
The last shall be first, and the weak shall be strong.
And none shall be afraid.
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.)