Commentary on Luke 2:8-20
Many parents hearing this scripture read on Christmas day have come to regard their own child as gifted — a gifted reader, a math whiz, a soccer talent, a genius on the piano.
These children have achieved this special status, aided by access to fine schools, computer programs on personal iPads, special coaching, private lessons. But what was it like for Mary and Joseph to hear of such superlative status proposed for their own new born child? And what would it be like for anyone who shares their social and economic status: forced by an impersonal state bureaucracy to travel, without connections, along dangerous roads; forced to find shelter, and to give birth without medical assistance, alongside animals in a stable; forced to endure the social stigma of an “irregular” conception (The reader has the inside information that the pregnancy is divinely legitimized, but no kinfolk or fellow villagers would have been privy to that information. We are never told how any of them react to the pregnancy, but surely it is a cause for social shaming of the couple, especially of Mary).
Did Mary have the right to hope any of these fantastical claims, proposed to her by rough and uneducated shepherds, had truth in them? Does any parent of a child born in such miserable circumstance have the right to hope for God to lift their own children up into holy service? Do we as a church have an obligation to treat all children, even and perhaps especially those most miserably born, as the sisters of Jesus, the brothers of Jesus, also as potential bearers of divine grace and salvation?
This story has been covered with so many layers of romantic sentiment for hundreds of years. We know that Mary is holy and pure. We know that Joseph is noble and loyal. We know that the baby Jesus is God incarnate. The status of the holy family is as predictable and familiar to us as the crèche characters that decorate our churches and our lawns, such that it is difficult to unleash the narrative’s provocative, and perhaps terrifying, message. One way to crack through those layers might be to appeal to the senses that would be aroused most fully in a barn populated with livestock, the companions of the bedraggled couple with their newborn. Anyone who has spent time with livestock in a barn knows the immediacy of the sweet stench of animal urine and feces. Anyone who has needed to sleep in a barn knows that straw has an itch, and is a potential carrier of vermin, spiders, and biting insects. The preacher might do well to linger in that manger. What in this sweet stench is holy? What divinity in this scratch? What sort of God do we encounter here? Why are these degraded conditions the circumstances in which the divine comes to us, in the flesh?
There are other means to crack through the sentimentalized layers that have accrued on this story over time that a preacher might wish to explore. Though angels are known to most 21st century Christians as draped in pastel colored robes with gentle halos and hymn books, in the world of the author of Luke and his sources, divine angels are terrifying creatures, warriors from the cosmic sphere, equipped for the final eschatological battle. The group that joins the speaking angel in Luke 2:13 is commonly designated in English as “a multitude of the heavenly host.” But the Greek contains a military term stratias — soldiers — and thus the group that bursts into praise here could well be described in translation as “a large number of soldiers from heaven.” Here Luke invokes the birth of the Christ child as priming the heavenly soldiers to break into triumphal song, while geared up for a great last fight, offering peace for those among whom their God finds favor, but doom for everyone else is implicit in this image. Christians are used to thinking of religious violence as the domain of other people’s faiths — Jews with their “God of Old Testament Wrath”; Muslims with their stories of glorious battles enshrined in Qur’an and Hadith. But what does it mean on this most holy day in the Christian calendar, that the story of a vulnerable babe’s birth is laced with images of cosmic military battle — violence and peace intertwining as comfortably as warp and woof of a piece of woven cloth.
Finally, one might reflect on the root cause of the family’s dispossession, the census decreed by the emperor Caesar Augustus. Biblical scholars regard the precise details provided in Luke 2:1-7 as not true to the historical record for a number of reasons. No author of the time, outside Luke, makes mention of such a momentous “worldwide” census, a population disruption of such enormity that it would surely have left a mark in ancient records, had it actually happened; when a census was undertaken for purpose of taxation in the ancient Roman empire, normal practice would not have been to require subjects to travel back to villages tied to ancestors from dozens of generations past; and so forth. But the larger point of the story told by Luke still resonates: Empires are able to wreak havoc on populations at whim, indifferent to the suffering inflicted especially on the vulnerable in consequence. But the emperor is not God. God is revealed here in the midst of the disposed, using them to bring hope to the world.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of proclamation, you sent shepherds to Mary to proclaim the good news that her child is God’s son. Send us into the world to proclaim the good news of your love to all who will hear. 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
O little town of Bethlehem ELW 279, H82 78, 79, UMH 230, NCH 133
Angels from the realms of glory ELW 280
Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, John Rutter