Excerpted from My Soul Magnifies the Lord, an Advent Guide for Lectionary Year C from the North Carolina Council of Churches. This post contains the scripture passage and reflections on its application.
The Lectionary Gospel Reading easily is divided for Christmas Eve, Luke 2:1-14, and for Christmas Day, Luke 2:15-20. Taken together, they create the full narrative of Luke’s witness of the decree to register, Mary’s pregnancy, the journey to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, and the visitation of the shepherds who “made known abroad” (King James Version) the joyous news of the Savior’s birth to all whom they encountered. From beginning to end, Luke tells the story of a journey begun by a secular command to go and register and ended with the reign of God made visible through the birth of the Messiah.
The Birth of Jesus
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered.
Rulers throughout time have issued decrees, calling for registration and taxation. Only the King James Version uses “tax” to describe the registration in 2 Kings 23:35 by Pharaoh and this registration in Luke 2 by Caesar Augustus. Luke’s description of this registration as “the first” implies more registrations to come. Registration is one way to keep up with people, money, and the location of each. Perhaps the present day registration process for Social Security, voting, and Selective Service can enable an understanding of the decree issued so long ago. Governments and leaders have their goals for finance and wealth while those who are ruled by them hope their cooperation will elicit benevolence and justice from the leaders.
The Gospel of Matthew also provides a birth narrative, with some similarities and some striking differences from what we find in Luke. Matthew begins his story with a list, listing the ancestors of Jesus all the way back to Abraham. The genealogy of Jesus is more interesting to Matthew than the actual birth. In the lineage of Jesus, the writer includes a list of “outsiders” whose blood courses through the veins of the Messiah, pointing to the inclusiveness of God’s salvation for all people. Matthew uses pedigree to establish legitimacy for this child of questionable parentage.
Luke, on the other hand, invites us into the story through this family’s experience of travel to Bethlehem, the search for shelter, and settling the newborn into a “manger because there was no place for them in the inn.”
4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Luke establishes Joseph’s heritage, placing Jesus in the house of David. Luke draws a parallel between David, who was a shepherd and the youngest of Jesse’s sons before being chosen to succeed Saul. Furthermore, Jesus is born in David’s hometown, Bethlehem, a small town in comparison to Jerusalem. To remind us of God’s preference for the powerless, Jesus is born without a proper roof over his head, in a stable among the animals. A visitor to the Church of the Nativity in present-day Bethlehem, in Palestine, might be surprised to see this ancient structure made of stone, within a cave-like portal, no hay or animals in sight.
The Shepherds and the Angels
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
Jesus is often depicted as “The Good Shepherd” in the earliest images that celebrate his life. Shepherds lived among their flocks in order to protect them. In one parable, Jesus tells the story of a shepherd leaving the “99” to save the “one” that wandered off. As we recall the birth of Jesus, we recall the promise of salvation he offered to those who gathered to hear him, often the poor and marginalized. The shepherds’ journey from their fields to find the one announced to them by the “heavenly host,” reminds us of the journey of our own faith journey.
9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
The shepherds were said to be “sore afraid” in the KJV, “terrified” in the translation of New Revised Standard Version and New International Version, and “feared great fear” in the Greek. The angel’s response, “Do not be afraid” delivered the good news of the Messiah’s birth, the one for whom the world had waited. The child is, himself, the sign, indicating the completion of God’s promise to deliver a Savior.
“The glory of the Lord” is associated in the Old Testament with the presence of God, filling the temple, above the temple, and on the threshold of the temple. It is an expression of the holiness of the place where God is found and experienced. Ezekiel describes the glory of the Lord in 1:28, “Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”
The multitude points to the bountiful gifts that God provides. Throughout the Old Testament there are promises of a multitude of blessings, including the increase of children as well as protection from those delivered into the hands of Israel by God. In the KJV, there is a multitude of the heavenly host only in Luke 2:13, marking the event of this birth with their song of praise.
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
As the “heavenly host” departed, the shepherds likewise departed, taking up the charge to “go now to Bethlehem and see this thing . . . which the Lord has made known to us.” Christians the world over are accustomed to seeing the tableau of “Mary, Joseph, and the child lying in the manger,” surrounded by the adoring shepherds and the gentle beasts. Having seen the sign, the shepherds are fearless and the story continues with their witness, amazing all who hear them tell the story. But wait! There is an important interruption to the shepherds’ story. Luke returns our attention to Mary who “treasures all these words and ponders them in her heart.” Mary’s quiet reflections are folded within the action of the shepherds, bookending her pondering with their amazing journey to Bethlehem and their ensuing glorification and praise of God.
~Para Drake, NC No Torture Project Coordinator
Hark! The herald angels sing! Glory to the new-born King!
Christmas day is upon us. We have been listening to Christmas music for the entire month, while decorating our homes for the holidays. We probably spent the past week scrambling to get those last minute gifts.
And here is it: Christmas day—a time when we can finally slow down, come together, and absorb all the joy this holiday brings. Christmas tends to be a busy season for us all and it becomes difficult to relax in all the hustle and bustle of this month. But now that Christmas day is here, this is the perfect time to begin to rest, to remember, and to reflect.
For over a year now, my family has been celebrating Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) every Friday. The Sabbath is a day of religious observance and abstinence of work, kept by Jews from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Most Christians claim Sunday as their “day of rest.” My parents (clergy and clergy spouse) decided to celebrate their Sabbath on Friday night since Sundays are among the busiest days for pastors, and a Sunday nap doesn’t measure up as a day of rest. They decided to celebrate Shabbat and set aside a day of rest that would bring together family, friends, acquaintances, and church members to share a meal and have thoughtful conversation together.
We begin every Shabbat by lighting candles and reciting a blessing. We then share a meal together, tell our highs and lows of the week (good things and not so good things that occurred), and answer a thoughtful question. Many of these meals are followed with desserts, games, and often dance sessions (featuring music from Disney movies and the 1980s). Since we’ve begun celebrating Shabbat, we have been given the opportunity to slow down and take time to rest and enjoy being with family and friends, catching up each week.
I mention Shabbat because now, on Christmas day, is the perfect time to recognize the Sabbath. Starting on Christmas day and throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas try and set aside some time to relax and enjoy the company of others. Bring family and friends together, share meals and memories, and practice great belly laughs. This year has been hectic for many of us, with December as the capstone. For the next Twelve days, make it a priority to take a break for Sabbath: rest, worship, remember, and reflect. This can be a time when we can truly enjoy the Christmas season, giving thanks for the birth of Jesus Christ. Merry Christmas! And Shabbat Shalom!
~Rachel Baker, Immigration Advocacy Program Coordinator