My Favorite Part of the Christmas Story

The Christmas story in Luke 2 is more subversive and radical than it appears.

When I think of the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, according to Luke 2, I am struck by its subversive quality. Luke tells the story in a manner that is challenging to both ancient and modern sensitivities. If we begin with the ancient context, the opening lines of the story take up familiar themes in the Roman world. The central figure is Caesar Augustus, whose authority extends to “all the world” (Luke 2:1). The emperor uses his authority to declare a census, which was a way to take an inventory of his people for tax purposes and conscription into the military.

Augustus’ reach is extended through the governor of Syria into the region of Galilee, where the call for a census disrupts the life of Joseph, who travels south to Bethlehem with a pregnant bride, scrambling to find a place to stay. The world belongs to Augustus, while Joseph and Mary are relegated to a stable. There seems to be nothing new here. It is a world in which some command and others obey, some seem secure in their positions and others live on the edge.

But there is a subversive theme running through these verses. It centers on the promises of God. Joseph is a descendant of David, the greatest of Israel’s past kings. Initially it appears that royal lineage is of little value to Joseph — it does not even help him finesse a room at the inn in Bethlehem. But the references to David’s lineage and city recall that God promised that one of David’s heirs would establish an everlasting kingdom (2 Samuel 7:12-13). In Luke’s narrative that signals the prospect that God’s ancient decree will subvert Caesar’s contemporary decree, and that through this movement of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, God’s intention to establish a different kind of kingdom is being realized.

The subversion continues in the next scene, where attention focuses on the shepherds. For modern readers, the shepherds often give a quaint or sentimental dimension to the story. People picture them sitting under the radiant night sky with sheep quietly resting on the grass and the gentle glow of lights from windows in Bethlehem in the distance. The images bring to mind the simple folk of long ago and far away. They touch the chord of longing for another time and place, less harried and complex than ours, when mysteries floated on the breezes of the night. Even in antiquity, a Roman poet like Virgil could write nostalgically about the shepherds who lay on the grass, playing songs on their flutes, as the sheep safely grazed beside them.

But the picture Luke gives us points in another direction. The shepherds are living in the fields. Where Mary and Joseph had to seek shelter in a stable, these shepherds do not even have a roof over their heads. And for them, sunset brings no relief from responsibility. They work the night shift, keeping watch over the flocks through the darkness. Not everyone had a sentimental view of such people. Shepherds led a rough life for little pay. Many thought of them as tough, unscrupulous characters who would all too readily pasture their animals on other people’s land and pilfer wool, milk, and lambs from the flock. Yet these are the people to whom God’s angel appears. They are not from the social class that one might expect the God of “highest heaven” to favor (Luke 2:14).

The subversive elements in the scene with the shepherds include the message of the angel, who brings “good news of great joy,” for “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). Consider the language. In the imperial world, the term “good news” was sometimes used for the birth of Augustus, whose reign was said to have brought peace throughout the world. The term was also used for events in the imperial household, such as the coming of age of Augustus’ son. But biblically the term also was used for the good news God’s acts of deliverance for people — a kingdom of another order (Isaiah 40:9-10Isaiah 52:7).

In Luke’s world the title “savior” was often used for the emperor. Inscriptions on public buildings would declare Augustus and his successors to be the “savior and benefactor” of the people. Luke takes the familiar title and explains its significance differently. Here the savior is one who also bears the title “Christ” or Messiah, the anointed one. The term is rooted in biblical tradition and encompassed hopes that God would send an heir to David’s throne. The child lying in the manger in David’s city marks the fulfillment of the divine promise.

One final subversive move occurs in the voices of the angels. The hallmark of Augustus’s reign was the establishment of the Pax Romana or Roman peace, an achievement that brought a measure of political stability and economic prosperity to the areas under imperial rule. Yet in the Christmas story the angels announce that peace on earth comes through the favor of God and is enacted through the birth of the child in the stable. It is peace of another order, achieved by different means. Luke’s Christmas story may be one of the most familiar in Scripture, but the details continue to surprise and reward the readers.

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