25 December 2010

Luke 2:1-20

"In those day a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria." (vv. 1-2)


This passage opens in a factual and prosaic way. It gives the necessary details to locate the birth of Jesus in time and place by making reference to the Roman Emperor, the local governor and Bethlehem, the city of David. 

Theologically the historical fact of Jesus' birth matters. It is the central claim of Christianity that "the Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). For this to be true, it is important for us to be able to establish where and when the timelessness of God intersected with the coordinates of space and time. 

Immediately, however, there are problems with the account in Luke's Gospel. It seems that no universal census took place in the Roman Empire. It is unlikely it took place under Caesar's direct authority. It is also unlikely that any registration would have required a Galilean to return to Bethlehem to be counted. And it is improbable that even if Joseph had to appear, he had to take Mary with him. 

Theologically, though, it mattered to Luke to set out the facts as he understood them, and to demonstrate how the prophesies of the Hebrew Scriptures were being fulfilled: Jesus is descended from David (Isaiah 11:1-3); he will be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). 

It is this that grounds Christianity as a 'this-worldly' as well as an 'other-worldly' religion. Although the second half of the passage brings us back to the world of angels and miraculous wonders - and all the familiar motifs of chapter 1 are there - fear at the angels' appearing (v. 9); announcements of joy (v. 10); amazement (v. 18); the praising of God (v. 20) and the pondering about the meaning of all these things (v. 19) - the miracle is that God is being revealed in flesh and blood. The miracle is that from now on, flesh and blood will be a place in which God will be encountered. From now on, the miracle is that the more we learn to live on earth in the here and now, the more we will find ourselves in heaven: 

"Glory to God in the highest heaven, 
and on earth peace amongst those whom he favours!" (v. 14) 

To Ponder

Does it matter to you that the date and place of Jesus' birth are hard to evidence? Why?

What experiences do you have of moments where 'the timeless' intersects with time?

What implications does the "Word becoming flesh" have for the way in which Christians live in the world?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jane Leach

Jane writes on ministry, pastoral supervision and pilgrimage..