Luke 2:1-21

Hope for the World

Luke 2:1-7  -  The Birth of Jesus

1 At that time a decree issued from Caesar Augustus
that there be a census of the whole Empire.
2 This census was the first under Quirinius the governor of Syria.
3 Everyone went to be registered,
each to their own town.

Luke had situated the birth of the Baptist during the reign of the Judean king, Herod. Events were still “in house”, as it were. For Jesus, the stage became the world stage, and the timing was identified by references to Rome’s Caesar and Syria’s governor. Jesus would be relevant, not just for Jews, but for the whole world – specifically for the non-Jewish Christians of Luke’s own community.

The purpose of a census (registration) was to calculate the imposition of taxes, and was deeply resented by the local inhabitants.

Hardly surprisingly, Luke’s history was not accurate. The only secular reference to a census of Judea by Quirinius dated it as taking place about ten years after Jesus’ birth, in the year 6 AD. It was the occasion of a revolt in Galilee, which was brutally crushed by the Roman governor. Luke was not interested in historical detail at this stage. His concern was with meanings.

Luke used the device of a shadily remembered census to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem so that Jesus could be born there, the original home of David and the traditional site for the birth of any saviour.

 4,5 So Joseph, together with Mary his betrothed, who was pregnant,
went from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth,
to Judea, to the town of David, called Bethlehem,
since he was of the house and family of David,
in order to be registered. 
6 While they were there, the time came for her to give birth, 
7 and she bore her first-born son.  
She wrapped him up and laid him in a feed-trough,
since the inn was not the place for them.

Though he did not specifically mention any stable, Luke made the point that the newly born child was laid in an animal’s feed trough. Certainly many peasant homes in Judea were built either with the ground floor as the stable and the floor above as the family residence, or a single ground-floor room divided into two, the ends being separated by feeding troughs. The reason for Jesus’ birth in such a place may have been that they were excluded from the inn (or caravanserai, the general temporary residence for travellers). Luke may simply have supposed that an inn was not a suitable place for the birth of any child.

Luke 2:8-20  -  Shepherds and Angels

8 In the district there were shepherds passing the night in the open,
keeping watch over their flock.
9 The angel of the Lord stood by
and the glory of the Lord shone round them.  
They were greatly frightened.
10 The angel said to them,
“Do not be frightened.  
Look, I bring you news of great joy,
for the whole people.
11 Today a Saviour has been born for you, in the city of David.  
He is Christ and Lord.
12 This will be a sign for you.  
You will find a child wrapped up in cloths and lying in a feed-trough.”

The description of Jesus’ birth was certainly low key, apparently unobserved, and with no indication by Luke of people’s reactions. However, he quickly moved into different mode.

Mention has already been made that use of angelic messengers served to indicate that the explanation to follow would convey truth accessible only to the eyes of faith. Angelic messages were statements of mystery.

Luke had the revelation of the central truth of Christian revelation, the Incarnation, made to shepherds. In Judean society shepherds were virtually at the bottom of the social honour system. They were regarded as “sinners”, rough and dangerous. They were people “at the fringes”. It was to these, consistent with the song of Mary, that God spoke. God had cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.

The angelic message identified Jesus as Saviour, Christ/Messiah and Lord. Already God had been regarded as Israel’s Saviour. Zechariah had extended the title to Jesus (1:69), and Elizabeth’s reference to him as Lord was confirmed.

His birth would be news of great joy for the whole people. In the common understanding of the day, “good news” had been technically reserved for announcements about the birth of princes, or victories throughout the empire. Again, consistent with the song of Mary, God has scattered the self-regarding arrogant. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones.

The sign given to the shepherds was noteworthy: the child would be like any other newly born child. Perhaps the only significant difference was that he would not be found in his own home but lying in an animal’s feed trough, presumably in someone else’s home, and wrapped up in cloths, the normal, covering for poor newborn children. Whatever about the details of the narrative so creatively and colourfully constructed by Luke, Jesus’ real presence would not be a factor of the extraordinary.

13 Suddenly with the angel
there was a throng of the heavenly host
praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to all in whom God is pleased.”

The lone angel was replaced by an angelic chorus, powerfully making the point that this child would be the bearer of peace, though a peace dependent on God’s being properly recognised and respected. So much for the “Pax Romana”, the peace imposed on subject nations by the brutally efficient militarist regime of Rome!

15 As the angels departed from them into heaven,
the shepherds were saying to each other,
"So let us go to Bethlehem
and see this event that has happened
which the Lord has made known to us." 
16 They hurried off
and found Mary and Joseph and the child laid in the feed-trough.
17 Seeing this, they recognised the truth
of the word spoken to them regarding the boy.
18 All who heard were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
19 On her part, Mary carefully kept all these words
and pondered them in her heart.
20 The shepherds went back glorifying and praising God
for all the things that they heard and saw,
just as it had been told them.

Luke had made his first specific reference to the contemplative stance of Mary:

  • she kept the words
  • she pondered them
  • and the pondering took place in her heart.

She took deliberate note of the words and the experience to which they referred: she let life touch her.

She reflected on the experience, seeking connections and meaning within her own frame of reference. No doubt, the reflection was done in the light of the accumulated wisdom of Israel and of the insights into God and the actions of God in the history of her people. The pondering took place in her heart, the deepest part of her own psyche, what might be referred to today as her spirit. Her pondering was not simply an intellectual exercise. It engaged the truest depths of her self.

Luke 2:21  -  Jesus Is Named

21 When the eight-day period was over,
he was circumcised.
He was given the name Jesus,
as he had been named by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.

Luke apparently believed it important to emphasise the Jewishness of Jesus: he was circumcised. Though his destiny would affect the salvation of the whole world, his origin lay clearly in Israel, God’s chosen people. He was the fruit of the long process of maturation that had happened in Israel over the many centuries of their history. Again, in line with Mary’s song, He has come to the help of Israel his child, mindful of his mercy, just as he said to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants for ever.

Next >> Luke 2:22-40