“Luke is interested in the symbolism of the manger, and the lack of room in the lodgings may be no more than a vague surmise in order to explain the mention of a manger. This manger is not a sign of poverty but is probably meant to evoke God’s complaint against Israel in Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows the manger of its lord; but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood me.” Luke is proclaiming that the Isaian dictum has been repealed. Now, when the good news of the birth of their Lord is proclaimed to the shepherds, they go to find the baby in the manger and begin to praise God. In other words, God’s people have begun to know the manger of their Lord.”
– Raymond E. Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ this week, I thought we might look again at Luke’s nativity narrative. It is a “pastoral” account, emphasizing the shepherds and the manger. These elements draw Luke’s attention because they evoke themes from the Hebrew Bible he sees fulfilled in the birth of the Christ-child.
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The manger. Luke’s deceptively simple birth narrative sets the rustic story of a baby’s birth within huge historical contexts. First, as Raymond Brown says above, the Gospel writer is weaving a tale that completes another square in the quilt of salvation history, as told by the storytellers and prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Second, Luke evokes images of Caesar Augustus, the “son of god,” the “savior,” and “lord” of the world, who was acclaimed for bringing “peace on earth” through Roman power.
The contrast magnifies the strange, upside-down ways of God’s grace. As Luke Timothy Johnson says, “Nothing very glorious is suggested by the circumstances of the Messiah’s birth. But that is Luke’s manner, to show how God’s fidelity is worked out in human events even when appearances seem to deny his presence or power” (The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina). Humble people in simple settings bring about monumental events.
The shepherds. This observation applies to Luke’s inclusion of the shepherds in this narrative as well. His mention of “shepherds” evokes a remarkably complex set of Biblical reflections, from the patriarchal stories and poems in the Torah to the adventures of David, to the promises given by the prophets, such as Micah 4-5, which foretold that Judah’s salvation would be announced near Bethlehem, at Migdal Eder — the “tower of the flock” (Micah 4:8).
As you look at your creche in this Christmas season, as you delight in watching children in their bathrobes with shepherds’ crooks in their hands, as you think about the birth of a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a feeding trough, thank God that he depends not upon grand political power, the exercise of power and domination, grand strategies and machinations.
No, it’s just about a couple having a baby.
In strange circumstances.
Changing the course of history.
Bringing down great rulers from their thrones.
Attracting the faithful of the land.
Bringing peace on earth.
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Photo by Tejvan Pettinger at Flickr. Creative Commons License