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The nativity stories strike me with wonder, especially the stark contrasts portrayed in the little baby Jesus. Pope Francis’ tweet on 23 Dec captures it:
“If you really want to celebrate Christmas, then contemplate this
image: The fragile simplicity of a new-born baby. That is where God is.”
Matthew’s nativity scene presents Jesus as the Jewish King, come in fulfillment of the prophecies, contrasted with Herod The Great, the puppet Jewish King.
Luke, however, contrasts Jesus with Caesar Augustus. He sets his story of Jesus’ birth against a far broader canvas of the Roman Empire, with the coming of God’s Empire in the baby Jesus to save the world.
Read Luke 2:1-19. “In those days Caesar Augustus decreed…”, is contrasted with v.6, “the time came for the baby to the born…” This is a means of historical dating of the nativity event, but Luke uses it to set the scene for an extended implied contrast between the two Emperors. ‘Caesar’ means King – of the known world at that time. God is in charge of time and history because, when Caesar issued his decree, God used it as the very timing for the birth of His King.
Caesar’s word moves Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Rome, meaning ‘power, strength’, is the centre of the Empire that makes it all happen. Bethlehem, meaning ‘House of Bread’, was in Palestine, the backwaters of the Empire in the Roman province of Syria. That’s where Jesus was born –The Bread of Heaven came to earth to feed the world with his own life. The centre of the Empire, indeed of the universe, had just moved from Rome to Bethlehem.
Mary, heavily pregnant, travelled with Joseph under decree, by donkey and on foot for at least three days to Bethlehem. They were not received. There was no guest room for them. They were put out into a cave where sheep slept at night. Caesar traveled in complete comfort to wherever, whenever, he wanted; and was received with celebration and fanfare, with pomp and ceremony.
Then “the time came for the baby to be born.” He was wrapped in simple cloths and placed in a manger, a feeding trough. Picture Caesar in his grand palace in Rome, robed with the extravagant excess of an Emperor who was worshipped as a Roman god, seated on his illustrious throne. The contrast could not be greater: Jesus’ palace was the cave, his robe was the wrapping cloth, his throne was the manger – from which he began his reign as God’s King to inaugurate His Empire. What dramatic reversal of values!
Luke introduces the attendants to King Jesus’ birth: the shepherds and the angels (v.8f). Sheep herders were the among the lowest and poorest in Palestine. God called them, in contrast to high society, to witness and attend the baby’s coronation. They were living in the fields watching the sheep. It was night. The power of darkness was suddenly pierced and overcome by light. Jesus, the light of the world, will overcome the darkness of evil, the empires of this world. Despite the so-called Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome, Jews were seriously oppressed under Roman rule, especially by the brutal occupying army.
The angels appeared in a dazzling blaze of glory, bringing “good news that will cause great joy for all people” (Lk 2:10). ‘Good news’ was a technical term (Greek evangelion, meaning ‘gospel’) used for the Roman Caesars. Heralds, technically evangelists, went to the ends of the Empire proclaiming the Gospel of Caesar: “Augustus was born in 63 BC, became King in 27 BC, defeated our enemies in such and such battles, established Pax Romana, bringing peace to the whole world.” He reigned for 41 years! Luke’s readers would not have missed the contrast of the Gospel of baby Jesus, God’s Emperor born on this day… He will bring true joy, the real peace, to all people… He is the hope of the world.
The angels proclaim Jesus as “Saviour, The Messiah, The Lord.” (Lk 2:11). These were titles for Augustus Caesar, known throughout the Empire. Loyalists would have bristled with anger at such, now blatant, comparison! Then the angels said, “this will be the sign for you to know him…” – NOT a King in dazzling robes on a majestic throne – but a vulnerable baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger in a sheep grotto. As shepherds, they would be right at home!
Suddenly there’s a great choir of angels filling the heavens praising God, in contrast to the choirs in Rome that sang Caesar’s praises as a Roman god. The angels sang of the rule of heaven come to earth bringing “peace” to all people of good will. Here again is Luke’s implied contrast with Pax Romana and Jesus’ Kingdom of Shalom. Hebrew shalom is God’s peace, meaning wholeness, order, harmony and prosperity, based on right relationship with God, ourselves, each other, and creation.
Then the shepherds hurried off to look for “the sign”: The fragile simplicity of a new-born baby. That is where God is – the greatest revelation of God’s power in such human weakness, in contrast to such worldly power and strength in human pride and glory.
“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed” (v.17). The shepherds, of the lowest and least respected in that society, become the evangelists of the lowly King, taking his evangel (Gospel) to the ends of the earth. They even become like the angels (angelos means messenger) proclaiming the Gospel of baby Jesus as Saviour, Messiah, Lord of Heaven and Earth, Joy of the world.
These dramatic contrasts are beautifully captured by St. Ephraim the Syrian (306-373 AD) in his Hymn to the Birth of Christ:
“God, who measures the sky with the width of his hand,
lies in a manger as large as a hand’s width;
He, who holds the sea in the hollow of his hand,
experienced his birth in the hollow of a cave.
The sky is full of his glory and
the manger is full of his splendor.”
However, as Origen (185-254 AD) asked, ““Does it profit us that Christ was
once born of Mary in Bethlehem if he is not born also by faith in our soul?”