Many of us adorn our homes and churches with beloved Nativity sets during Advent and Christmas. They’ve become an integral part of our celebration of the season. But there’s also an unintended consequence of these lovely sets. They usually “clean up” the story for us, so to speak. They aren’t dusty, don’t need mucking, and don’t smell. Consequently, we often are not attuned to the way Luke’s story would have surprised and challenged its 1st century audience in the time before Nativity sets made the scene pretty.
Peasants, barns, and shepherds
We can begin to acquaint ourselves with such a challenging reading of Luke 2 by noting the ways our gospel writer reminded his 1st century readers of the realities of the Roman rule under which they and the people in this story struggled to live well (see the commentary on Matthew 1:18-25 for notes on Roman rule). Roman rulers are named specifically. A poor peasant couple registers for more taxes. They must travel for this registration when Mary is near her time to deliver a baby (remember the King James Version phrase “great with child”?). The story implies that these Roman demands meant there was “no room in the inn.” That is, others would also have had to travel there to register for the taxes and had taken the few available rooms already. Consequently, Luke shows Rome’s oppressive and callous rule causing this baby, whose coming was grandly announced first in Luke by none other than Gabriel who stands in the presence of God (1:19), to be born in a barn and “cradled” in a feeding trough.
Many of us have been in barns, so we can imagine how conditions were hardly safe or sanitary for birthing. There’s no mention of a midwife, so this young couple could have attended to the birth by themselves. How terrifying that would have been in a world where mothers and babies often died in childbirth, even in favorable circumstances. When the birth was done, Mary rested her baby in a manger, in other words, a feeding trough for barn animals. She had to have been exhausted. Joseph likely was as well, for that matter, though not like Mary. I hope there was water for cleaning mother and baby. I hope there was sufficient food. But we don’t know about these things. In its 1st century context, then, this birth story is not clean, neat, or lovely.
Furthermore, the only ones to note the event were shepherds, who may have been less clean and more malodorous than the barn where the baby was born. Shepherding was considered a despised occupation in this world. They kept sheep in the Judean desert around Bethlehem where available water had to be used primarily for drinking (by both people and sheep). Consequently, there was little left for hygiene and even less for the ritual purity acts which helped define faithfulness for many 1st century Judeans. They also would have been poorer and less “socially acceptable” than peasants like Joseph and Mary. When Luke wrote that all who heard the shepherds’ witness “marveled” or “wondered” at what they said (2:18) he might not have meant in a positive sense. He may have indicated that the people wondered what kind of strangeness, even idiocy, they were hearing from poor (pathetic?) shepherds.
Thus, when explored in its 1st century context, Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth reflects the difficult lives of the majority of people in Israel and throughout the Empire. While Rome probably didn’t directly impact them every day, Roman oppression and injustice surrounded them always and affected how their lives unfolded. Furthermore, the story illustrates their powerlessness in the face of Roman rule and power: Though a journey at this time in Mary’s pregnancy would have been difficult and dangerous, they apparently had no option to choose a different time.
An alternative narrative
And yet, Luke’s story is that God is fulfilling promises to renew all of creation through this baby born to Jewish peasants under problematic circumstances with only shepherds as witnesses. This baby, Luke insists, will bring “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (see 1:79). This baby will bring hope to God’s people suffering under the rule of the mighty Romans. How is that even possible? A 1st century person encountering this story for the first time might look at the believers who told it as if they’d lost their minds!
Via coins, monuments, inscriptions, proclamations, and temples dedicated to emperors, Roman propaganda in the 1st century declared that the most powerful gods had chosen the Romans to rule the world and bring it peace. The Caesars would never have attained such power without these gods’ favor, they proclaimed. They declared that Rome’s use of force when necessary and their “peace by conquest” were ordained by these gods. This propaganda sought to persuade subject peoples that their best interests lay in cooperating with Rome as the path to favor from the gods, even as Roman rule brought them suffering.
But 1st century believers in Jesus told a different story: Through a baby born in a barn to peasant parents, with the poverty and weakness of the moment on full display, the One God of Israel is renewing all of creation and bringing peace through love and justice (not force). A few decades prior to Luke penning this story, Paul had written that the crucified Christ was the wisdom and power of God (1 Corinthians 1:21-25). A decade or so after Luke wrote, John the Revelator portrayed “the lion of the tribe of Judah” as a “lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Revelation 5:5-6).1 The New Testament writers consistently show God’s power to be different, not merely greater, from Rome’s. They proclaimed that God’s grace, mercy, and tenderness born of God’s steadfast love and embodied in this baby are bringing light into a world darkened by injustice, violence, and death. The story surely amazed its first century hearers.
Loving God, you sent your only son, Jesus, into the world, so that all might know of your love. Remind us daily that we are your precious children, too. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
O come, all ye faithful ELW 283, H82 83, UMH 234, NCH 135 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
What sweeter music, Michael Fink