Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

Expectation. Birth. Manger. Shepherds. Angels. Witness. Many such details constitute the common ingredients in any veteran preacher’s Christmas Eve message.

You will find a child
"You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." - Luke 2:12 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

December 24, 2017

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Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

Expectation. Birth. Manger. Shepherds. Angels. Witness. Many such details constitute the common ingredients in any veteran preacher’s Christmas Eve message.

Indeed, if you have been involved in the vocation of preaching for a while, you may be able to virtually rattle off the story of the Lord’s Nativity from rote memorization! Herein lies the conundrum. What other angles on the Nativity can be articulated other than the usual annual message?

Perhaps, one way to go about reading the Nativity with new eyes is by describing differently the relationship between Luke 2, the larger gospel account, and the Old Testament. A variety of intertextual or thematic cross-reference opportunities are available to the interpreter starting with the Nativity scene in Luke 2.

Worth noting from Luke 2 are the thematic and textual echoes from the Old Testament, especially among the writings of the prophets, as well as details that foreshadow moments in the larger storyline of the Gospel of Luke. The story of Jesus’ birth can be an avenue for looking backward and forward across the two storied testaments and within the Gospel of Luke. Readers need only to pay attention to some of the details as breadcrumbs leading back to the stories of old.

Connections between Old Testament and Gospel of Luke

One of the first echoes from the Old Testament worth noting is Luke’s reference “to the city of David called Bethlehem” (Luke 2:4). Bethlehem is significant in that it is designated the birthplace of David (1 Samuel 16:1-13). Although the origin of the city is undetermined, it initially appears in the biblical account under the name of Ephrath with parenthetical references to Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19; 48:7). It is in the Book of Judges where one first reads of Bethlehem as a site of Israelite inhabitants (Judge 17:7, 19-20).

The Lucan reference to Bethlehem connects Jesus’ birth to the five books of Moses (Pentateuch), and also to the prophetic writings. Specifically, Luke 2:4 may allude to the prophetic writing of Micah where it says, “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). The prophetic writing of Micah is a common source informing the Gospel of Luke’s narrative. Other echoes to passages from Micah’s prophetic writing include: Luke 1:33 and Micah 4:7, Luke 1:55 and Micah 7:20, Luke 1:74 and Micah 4:10, Luke 2:11 and Micah 5:1, and Luke 2:14 and Micah 5:4 (to name a few).

The relative concentration of potential Micah references in the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke is not incidental. The prophetic connection and role of Jesus as the Messiah reverberates throughout the Gospel of Luke in a way unmatched by the other gospels. From references to Jesus characterizing his own mission by appeals to prophetic texts (Luke 4:17) as well as prophetic personages (Luke 4:27, 20:6) to Jesus’ general rehearsals of prophetic experiences of censure, maltreatment, and rejection (Luke 4:24; 13:33) — prophetic echoes from the Old Testament are strong.

A concentration of Davidic references also prevails in Luke’s gospel. As such, the Bethlehem reference has larger significance than perhaps one realizes. Bethlehem is not only the birth city of Jesus and home of Joseph, but its two references in Luke (2:4, 15) are only one of the multiple ways the gospel asserts Jesus’ connection and continuation of the Davidic lineage and mission (Luke 1:27, 32, 69; 3:31; 18:38-39).

The Davidic connection is asserted elsewhere in this passage — namely, through the reference to the shepherds in the field in Luke 2:8. It echoes back to the iconic shepherd-king of Israel, David, and his place of anointing (1 Samuel 16:11, 19; 17:15, 28, 34; Psalm 78:70-72). The language of the shepherds finding “a sign” in Luke 2:12 in the form of a child harkens back to the account of Saul’s anointing by Samuel. This anointing moment designates Saul as the divinely ordained savior of God’s people, whose task is ultimately carried out by David. In the anointing ritual, Samuel says, “The LORD has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the LORD and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around. Now this shall be the sign to you that the LORD has anointed you ruler over his heritage…” (1 Samuel 10:1).

One last point worth noting briefly is how the presence of shepherds and angels shift the meeting place of humans and the divine from the Temple, in Luke 1, to the fields in Luke 2. The gospel begins with a theophany (or angelophany, more technically) in which Zechariah encounters the divine message in the place established to house the presence of God, the Temple (Luke 1:8-23). At the birth of Jesus, however, the place of meeting shifts to the common and everyday space of devoted people like shepherds in the field. Indeed, Luke’s Jesus uses the story of Abiathar giving the bread of presence to David (1 Samuel 21:1-6; see also Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:5-9) to disrupt the prevailing application of Sabbath law, as represented by the Gospel of Luke (see also Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28). In this way, perhaps, the significance of space and God’s presence as well as interaction among humanity continues to shift in the gospel.

Ultimately, the Nativity scene in Luke exhibits a rich texture of reinterpretations from the prophetic tradition of Israel. Thus, the sense of expectation that lingers in the air of Advent and Christmas Eve is not simply an invention of secular holiday spirit. Rather, it is a key aspect of the Nativity moment itself.

Captured in Luke 2 are scriptural expectations about who Christ is and what is to come in the years following Jesus’ birth. Here, the writer is involved in a process of interpretative retrieval and recasting. He retrieves the prophetic and Davidic expectation present in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) and recasts it in the light of his account of Jesus’ birth narrative.

Looking back to Old Testament echoes is the first step in understanding the birth of Jesus. The next interpretative move requires an additional step backward to a universal creation story — God creating woman, man, and the world out of God’s unending love toward us. Jesus’ birth is a gesture of God not abandoning creation, but ever working to connect humanity across time to each other and to God’s self (see Luke’s genealogy and particularly its conclusion, 3:23-38).

Thus, the focus of Luke 2 does not reside in the narrative details modern Christians have come to love such as the manger, angels, and shepherds. Rather, the purpose of Luke’s interpretative enterprise manifests in the impression and understanding of the identity and work of Jesus Christ and God’s love for the world imparted to the hearers and readers of the gospel record. That moment is worth communicating and expecting.