December 18, 2017

Christmas I: An Ordinary, Humble Story Set on a Great Stage

The Nativity, Backer

By Chaplain Mike

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

• Luke 2:1-7 (ESV)

Yesterday, we received a DVD of my all-time favorite film, Casablanca, for a Christmas present. It is filled with scenes that are iconic in the American movie lexicon, but none is more famous than the final scene. That’s when Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman stand in the fog on the runway tarmac and Bogart says, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” Shortly after those words, Bogart says, “We’ll always have Paris,” and “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and one of the most romantic, heart-tugging scenes ever made concludes.

“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” You might excuse the world for writing those words over the Christmas story. However, the Gospel of Luke tells us that the ordinary, humble experiences of three little people in a small corner of the Roman Empire many years ago actually made all the difference.

A Humble, Ordinary Story Is Set on a Great Stage
The first verses of Luke 2 set the events of the first Christmas in a context that encompasses the entire world with its great people and history-making events. Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in the context of world powers. The name of Caesar Augustus (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus) would have evoked worldwide, even cosmic thoughts on the part of Luke’s first readers.

Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, had presided over an era of unprecedented peace and expansion in the empire. He brought to an end the civil wars that had plagued them for over a century, and Augustus was proclaimed, “The savior of the whole world.” One inscription honoring the Emperor asserted, “The birthday of the god [Augustus] marked the beginning of good news for the world.” Everywhere, he was honored as the ruler who had brought about the pax Romana—the peace of Rome. When he died in AD 14, the Roman Senate declared him a god, to be worshiped by all Romans.

So Caesar Augustus was worshiped as a god, proclaimed the world’s savior, the one whose birth, life and reign brought good news of peace to all the earth. Hmmm. Sounds familiar.

Luke also sets Jesus’ birth in the context of world proclamation. He tells how Caesar pronounced an edict that affected the entire world, a census that all citizens throughout the earth were to obey. A few years before this, a local governor named Quirinius of Syria (also mentioned in this passage) had proclaimed a census in the part of the world where Jesus was born. That registration had led to a Jewish revolt and the beginning of a rebellion known as the Zealot movement, which called for the violent overthrow of the Roman oppressors. In contrast to that census which provoked conflict between the Romans and Jews, in the Christmas story Luke emphasizes that Joseph and Mary obeyed the emperor’s subsequent decree and went to Bethlehem, where peace would be born.

What happened there would lead to a new proclamation that would go out into the whole world, announcing peace to Jews and Gentiles alike.

Nativity, Correggio

Ordinary People Experience a Humble Birth-Event
From one point of view, it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world of world powers and proclamations that go out into the whole world, affecting people everywhere. When two ordinary Jewish citizens named Joseph and Mary obeyed Caesar’s decree and made their way to Bethlehem to be registered in the census, it is certain that few noticed.

Events like the one that happened to them don’t make the news headlines. Caesar gets the press. Wars, politics, world finance, great accomplishments of industry—these are what we hear about day in and day out. In our day it’s the war in Afghanistan, the sword-rattling of North Korea, an unstable world economy, upcoming royal weddings, and events in the lives of celebrities and prominent people. Ordinary lives like ours and common events like a baby’s birth don’t usually get the media’s attention.

In Luke 2 we read of a man and a pregnant woman making a journey from one small town to another. Upon arrival, they are forced to take up lodging in an animal shelter because the local inn was full. The woman’s birth pains begin, and she has her baby there in that less than ideal setting. It’s a memorable family story, but not all that uncommon. After all, women give birth every day, often in unwelcoming circumstances. It wasn’t the setting or the birth itself that got anyone’s attention. To all appearances, it was a humble, ordinary affair. Luke records the story simply:And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

The Mystical Nativity, Botticelli

Though Humbly Born, This Is No Ordinary Child
It is a this point that Luke’s Christmas story moves from being the story of two common people who have a baby to something more. From what follows, Luke lets us know that the problems of three little people DO amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

• Luke 2:8-14

Notice the words and phrases Luke emphasizes in telling the story of Jesus’ birth. He highlights terms from the mythology and propaganda of Caesar Augustus, the great emperor of the Roman Empire, the one who got all the headlines in those days, applying them to the newborn baby in Bethlehem.

  • His birth announcement is a “Gospel” (good news) for all people everywhere.
  • He is proclaimed the “Savior.”
  • He is acclaimed as the “Lord.”
  • He is given divine approval and accolades by the heavenly host who announce that his coming will mean glory to God and peace to people on earth. The pax Romana (the Roman peace) has now become the pax Christi (the peace Christ brings).

Luke also links this event to the long story of Israel. There are significant references from the First Testament in Luke’s narrative that would have caught the attention of his Jewish audience.

  • Micah 4:8 said that Israel’s King would be announced at Migdal Eder, the “Tower of the Flock”—“And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.” And so, the word comes first to shepherds tending their flocks outside Bethlehem.
  • He recalls God’s promises to David, that one of his heirs will reign on the throne as Messiah (Christ).
  • The baby was “wrapped in swaddling cloths.” This may recall Solomon’s words in the book of Wisdom: “I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. For no king has had a different beginning of existence” (7:4-5). The Royal One came into the world just like other babies do.
  • The manger may recall Isaiah 1:3—“The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” The emphasis on the manger in Luke’s story may indicate that it is time for God’s people to return to the manger and her Master.
  • Some have suggested that the “Gloria in Excelsis” said by the angels was a form of the “Sanctus” (Isa 6) that was prayed in the Temple at Jerusalem. If so, it is intriguing that, with Christ’s birth, the focus of worship has moved outside the Temple and the whole countryside is filled with praise.

By framing his story in these terms, Luke lets us know that the Child born on that first Christmas was no ordinary child, but the Promised One who would bring hope and salvation to Jew and Gentile alike. This is a baby whose humble, ordinary birth would change the world forever.

Adoration of the Shepherds, Bronzino

Ordinary, Humble People Receive the Good News
The final section of the Christmas story shows how the shepherds responded to the good news by going to Bethlehem, seeing and responding to Jesus.

I encourage you to read Jeff’s excellent post, “Losers Who Win” (12/16), to learn more about these shepherds and what they were like.

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.  And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

• Luke 2:15-20

What happened with regard to them and those around them is best seen in the verbs that are used in this paragraph.

  • The shepherds went (with haste).
  • They found.
  • They saw.
  • They made known the saying that had been told them.
  • They returned.
  • They glorified and praised God.

In addition, we see Mary “treasuring up all these things” and “pondering them in her heart.”

Together, that list is about as concise and comprehensive a description of a life captured by the Good News of Jesus that I have ever heard. I won’t take the time to unpack these verbs at this time, but I would encourage you to meditate upon them and ask God to teach you what it means to respond to the Christmas story as the shepherds and the Holy Family did.

Merry Christmas.

Comments

  1. This is sort of missing the point.

    Bogart’s character’s statement about “the problems of three people” is precisely because her following the freedom fighter is going to be much more important to the health of the world at large than her love for Bogart’s character. It’s not that what they’re doing is important, but rather what they would prefer to be doing.

    Mary and Joseph probably didn’t prefer to be known to be raising a bastard. It probably royally wrecked their lives in many ways, but they sacrificed what they would prefer for the will of God, in precisely the same way that Bergman and Bogart’s characters were giving up what they really wanted for the greater good of the world.

    Though I don’t know if that makes the freedom fighter guy an analogue for Jesus, that would probably get pretty messy. 😛

  2. Happy Feast of St. Stephen, although being the first Sunday after Christmas Day, it is superceded by the Feast of the Holy Family, which ties in nicely with your post, Chaplain Mike.

    The season of Christmas has begun – may we all continue in good health and good spirits for the next Twelve Days!

  3. Clay Knick says:

    This was splendid.

  4. As we celebrate the Advent season, please remember those Christians who live in lands where they are persecuted for their Faith.

  5. I love seeing in Catholic churches statues in honor of a poor, rough carpenter holding the tools of his trade. It echoes the words of Paul, that the strength and wisdom of God are weakness and foolishness to the world. Unfortunately, I can’t recall ever seeing a statue in honor to Saint Joseph in a protestant church. We seem to be fatally bitten by the theology of glory, where the healthy and wealthy are the honored of God. There seems to be no room for a poor hand laborer and his pregnant wife. There is no room for a suffering savior dying in humiliation on a crucifix.

    • I was in a Catholic service this morning. Jesus was still there as usual, but the usual statue of him was replaced by a baby in a nativity scene. Is that common in Catholic practice? Or just something the church I attended does?

      dumb ox says:
      >> I can’t recall ever seeing a statue in honor to Saint Joseph in a protestant church. <<

      Do any Protestant churches have any statues at all?

    • “Unfortunately, I can’t recall ever seeing a statue in honor to Saint Joseph in a protestant church.”

      To be fair to our separated brethren, that’s probably because no statues of the saints at all are encouraged because of the whole ‘invocation of saints/idolatry’ fall-out from the Reformation.

      I have never quite understood how it can be acceptable to have the cross but not the crucifix – it’s a bit pointless without the corpus.

      • Martha, my understanding of having just the cross in the church, but not the crucifix, is to emphasize that Jesus was resurrected. I believe some non-Catholics feel that Catholics emphasize sacrifice TOO much and don’t spend enough time on the glory. But we can’t have one without the other. And even though we know Jesus defeated evil, death, sin and rose from the dead with a glorified type of body and tells us that he will be with us always, we STILL experience suffering daily and seeing Jesus on that cross reminds us that even God suffered in a human body.

      • “To be fair to our separated brethren, that’s probably because no statues of the saints at all are encouraged because of the whole ‘invocation of saints/idolatry’ fall-out from the Reformation.”

        Martha, in defense of my fellow baptists and congregationalists, we do have a graven image of an eagle perched on the mast above our American flag…

        But otherwise no idolatry allowed…

        • Our Christian faith is filled with symbol & reference. Traditions representing these things can be what we categorize as liturgical or minimalist, but these ‘trappings’ themselves not the ‘thing’ we should not get worked-up over overly defensive about IMHO.

          To be honest, a crucifix does not endear me to Jesus or cause me to ponder the physical cost of His most gruesome torture & method of execution.

          On the other hand, a simple cross does not turn my thoughts to the Easter part of the Grand Story either.

          Those earthly events when compared to eternity were, short, concise, complete acts in human history, but the resurrected Christ the One that I encountered 36 years ago. There have been masterpieces of great art portraying the suffering Messiah. And it can be great art. I have not ‘seen’ a sufficient representation of Jesus the Glorified One that evokes any great awe or other emotional response. Yet it is this Jesus bearing the scars of His passion & suffering that is in my mind’s eye when I think of Him.

          I live in a dimension of space+time that keeps me ‘trapped’ in the present. This is where “I live, move and have my being.” Looking back thru the lens of written records the better method of relaying the story. It rests on the long honored method of oral tradition beginning with eye witness accounts of the Greatest Story Ever Told. I believe it was deliberate on God’s part that Jesus never poised for a sculpture or a mosaic or painting. No cameras on Golgotha. No video recordings of His life & miracles replete with sound. And yet we continue to ‘look’ outside ourselves for some tangible reminders of His short time here on this earth. All the while He is within us as the more unbelievable truth…

          Maybe it was the intent to bring glory to God that those with artistic ability use their skill to represent something so profound it cannot be contained in any one medium. We have symphony, painting, sculpture, poem, book, play, cathedral, etc. created by human hands to reflect something of the divine in its crafting. Something to communicate God’s character & interaction with mankind. And if I could wish for some manner of representing Jesus how would I do it?

          I think I will ponder that question a bit more. Thanx for the thought-provoking postings…

          • Joseph, I’m not sure if you were answering me or Mike, but…

            If it was me, I was being a little tongue-in-cheek about the flag and the eagle. I’m more amused than anything, because we really don’t even acknowledge the existence of the flag in our sanctuary. It just sits there lonely. However, the only other images are the stained-glass window of Jesus as Good Shepherd; a bare-naked wooden cross on the communion table (sorry, no corpus, Martha); a painting of Jesus in the foyer; and banners, weavings, etc, that kids have made. Pretty sparse, and I’m not sure if it’s because we’re baptists or just slobs at art (is there a difference?).

            As long as the flag doesn’t become an issue, I’m in favor of ignoring it. I see all kinds of problems with trying to get rid of it.

          • Ted: writing aloud again more than answering. My posting style more musing than trying to either agree or disagree in a respectful Christian manner. My thoughts really addressing all the points raised in this thread.

            Re: flags in the sanctuary. I am against the display of them, but only because the sacred space in a church should be without national or political identity. If the church likened to the Temple, then it should be a place of prayer for all peoples+nations. Patriotism can be, and has been, elevated to almost divine decree in some parts of the country & some churches. The troubling trend of equating God’s favor & destiny of this nation’s founding with that of Israel a gross distortion of His insistence we are not of this world or its system(s). I am of a centrist, mostly conservative political persuasion, but still free-thinking. I do not claim to automatically be a Republican simply because I first claim allegiance to the King of kings & Lord of lords whose kingdom not of this earth. For me, there is plenty of room within political/national identity to keep things in an eternal perspective within being entangled with them.

            We have no flags in our little church. No political support from the pulpit during election campaigns. No star-spangled teachings on July 4th. We concentrate on the gospel priorities to the best of our ability as a motley group of saints being Jesus to the least of these. The simplicity of the Christmas message brings me back to its global message to all men. Thanx for the exchanges.

          • Joseph said:
            “Re: flags in the sanctuary. I am against the display of them, but only because the sacred space in a church should be without national or political identity. If the church likened to the Temple, then it should be a place of prayer for all peoples+nations. Patriotism can be, and has been, elevated to almost divine decree in some parts of the country & some churches. The troubling trend of equating God’s favor & destiny of this nation’s founding with that of Israel a gross distortion of His insistence we are not of this world or its system(s).”

            —and I couldn’t possibly have said it better myself.

  6. The statue of Joseph being replaced by the Baby Jesus is common, it is usually a part of a Navtivity . In my Catholic parish the statue of Joseph was moved , along with the statue of Mary to one of the church’s other altars.
    In my father’s Methodist church there are no statues, only one stained glass window of the Good Shepard. But I have seen statues in the Anglican Cathederal in Dublin and in a high TEC church in New York.

  7. The beautiful thing about all this is that the case is made Jesus was born 25 December 2 B.C.! That Jesus entered into the world so that we may have everlasting life. God bless you all and Merry Christmas!

    • Catholic Defender….how did you come up with “the case is made Jesus was born 25 December 2 B.C.?” I don’t have any problem with this being the case, but I am wondering how you got that from what Chaplain Mike wrote. Just curious!

  8. I went to my local Catholic church Christmas morning and the large crucifix with the copper figure of Jesus was still prominent. But in front of the altar there was a nativity scene as well. There was a Christmas tree in the corner and poinsetta plants all over the place. Red banners and red plaid banners hung from posts. It was all very pretty. There was maybe only 80 people there because Christmas Eve had two masses, one at 4 pm geared for children and one at 7 pm as a more “typical” mass geared toward adults. The priest told us that those masses were packed. That’s good to know!

    There is a copper statue grouping of Jesus and Mary holding the hands of toddler Jesus along another wall of the church. There is a separate statue of St. Joseph since this church is called “St. Joseph’s.” And there is a statue of Mary that is not “gaudy.” There is a beautiful stained glass window of Jesus. In a smaller chapel within the church, there is another crucifix which is more realistic looking than the copper one. Then there is a wood carving of Joseph and one of Mary. Both the chapel and the church itself have the 14 stations of the cross on the walls. One has the realistic illustrations and one again is done in copper. (The priest three priests ago LIKED copper and had an artist do all those!)

    • That should have been written, “There is a copper statue grouping of JOSEPH and Mary…” Sorry about that. I really dislike making typos!

  9. I am reading an old book of stories, essays, poems that were published in the Christian Herald. One is called “A Meditation” by J. H. Jowett. He writes about God revealing himself through Jesus to the aged Simeon in the temple, to the wise men from the east and to the shepherds. He says God was thus revealed to the worshipers, the scholars and the workers and that God satisfied the desires of the soul, the mind, the body. I like this very much.