Christmas

The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-20)

INTRODUCTION

Christmas reminds us the value of humility by exposing the humble beginning of Jesus’s life in this world by his birth in an animal shelter. Jesus told Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (John 3:16). In Christmas, we see this immense love of God who sent down his Son as He had promised. Jesus continued this humility and self-sacrifice throughout his life and death. Jesus taught us the value of humble service for God and His people who deserve our love and service.

Bible Text

(1) In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. (2) This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (3) So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. (4) And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, (5) to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. (6) While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, (7) and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

(8) Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. (9) The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. (10) The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. (11) For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. (12) And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (13) And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: (14) “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

The Visit of the Shepherds. (15) When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (16) So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. (17) When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. (18) All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. (19) And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. (20) Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

INTERPRETATION

(1) In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.

Caesar Augustus
He was the first and greatest of the Roman emperors who ruled between 27 BC and 14 AD. When 40 Roman senators, through a conspiracy, assassinated Julius Cesar in 43 BC, he had selected his sister’s son Gaius Octavius as his successor. He was later known as Caesar Augustus. He defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC and afterward gained control over Rome and its extensive territories. He was named emperor in 27 BC and given the honorary title Augustus. Augustus means ‘majestic.’ During his region, he brought peace and prosperity to the empire.

During those days, there was no common religion. Emperor was considered as god or son of god. Greek inscriptions reveal that Augustus was regarded as “savior” and “god” in the empire. After becoming emperor, Caesar Augustus maintained peace in the empire called “pax Augusta.” Jesus was born during his reign. However, Luke, the evangelist presents the true God and Savior who brought peace into the world in the child Jesus. Peaceful time was the favorable period for taking census in the empire.

The whole world should be enrolled
The Roman empire was vast and comprised of most of the known countries. “The whole world” can also mean “all the people of the emperor’s domain.” Periodic census was taken every 14 years for taxation purpose and to take account of those who were eligible for military service. However, Jews were exempt from military service.

(2) This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

The First Enrollment
Quirinius did a second census nine years after the birth of Christ when Judea was reduced to a Roman province and Archelaus was removed and exiled. The Evangelist specifies that Jesus was born in the context of the first enrollment and not the second by Quirinius.

A Historical Account
Judea was part of the province of Syria. That is why Luke says that the birth of Jesus happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. The names of the Roman emperor and the governor of Syria give us the assurance that Jesus was a historical figure.

Prophesy Fulfilled
The universal census taken under the order of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus became the reason for Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the City of David. The prophesy would have failed if the governor had not implemented the order of the emperor at that time or if Joseph and Mary had delayed their journey to Bethlehem.

(3) So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.

Each in his own town
The Roman custom was to register in one’s own domicile because the pagans did not care about their ancestry like the Jews. Jews kept their genealogy tracing back to the 12 sons of Jacob. That is why we have separate genealogical accounts of Jesus through the ancestral lines of Joseph and Mary in the gospels of Mathew and Luke.

Since the Jewish census was based on their tribes and families, they had to go to their own native land. Joseph, the legal father of Jesus was a descendant of David’s son Solomon, and Mary the mother was a descendant of King David’s son Nathan. So they travelled more than 80 miles, that took many days, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the birthplace of David. This also gives the indication that Jesus is “Son of David.”

(4) And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David,

Went up from Nazareth to Bethlehem
On the map, Bethlehem is below or south of Nazareth. In that sense the text could be “went down from Nazareth.” Topographically Bethlehem that is near Jerusalem is a higher place than Nazareth in Galilee. So one who travels from the north to the south was climbing up and that was felt more because Joseph and Mary were walking or traveling on an animal.

Bethlehem
Bethlehem means “the house of bread” because it was a fertile land for agriculture and rearing animals. Jesus who said, “I am the Living Bread that came down from Heaven” (John 6:51) was born in that house of bread that produced food for the Jews.

An escape from Herod
This temporary living of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem far south from Galilee and easily accessible to Egypt for escape was providential arrangement of God to protect the Holy Family from the snares of treacherous King of Jews, Herod the Great who wanted no other king to be born for Jews.

(5) to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

Mary by this time was legally married to Joseph because he took her to his home that is equivalent of wedding (Mathew 1:24). However, their marriage was not consummated because of the virgin birth.  That must be the reason why the evangelist continued to use the term “betrothed.”

(6) While they were there, the time came for her to have her child.

Joseph and Mary reached Bethlehem after the tiresome journey of many days. Then it was time for Mary to give birth to her son. What a miserable situation for the Holy Family! Had the birth happened in Nazareth, they would have lot of convenience like their own house to give birth, help of midwife, support of family, relatives and friends.

(7) And she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

The Virgin Birth
According to the Jewish law, the firstborn son had special rights and privileges. He shall be offered to God and then redeemed (Num. 18:15-16) and he shall inherit a double share of his father’s property (Deut. 21:17). The duty for the firstborn son was required regardless of whether other sons were born or not. So the presentation of Jesus as firstborn does not mean that Mary had other sons.

Swaddling clothes
Solomon the physical son of King David narrates in Wisdom 7:4 that he was wrapped in swaddling clothes when he was born. Jesus, the “Son of David” was also wrapped in the same manner. Mary had to do this herself because there was none to help her other than Joseph.

Manger
Manger was a feeding holder for animals. That was the best available place to hold the baby Jesus with straw forming a warm bed. The ox and ass who face the manger might warm the baby in the cold winter. Fathers of the church refers this to: “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood.” (Isiah 1:3). In fact, most of the Israelites, especially the elite, could not understand a Messiah born in cattle shed and resting in a manger.

No room in the inn
Because of Mary’s advanced pregnancy, Joseph and Mary traveled slow. So they could not reach on time to get accommodation in an inn. The inn during that time was a primitive shelter with accommodation for animals. According to Biblical scholars, Bethlehem being a small city would have only one inn.

Parallelism of birth and death of Jesus
Jesus who was born in a cave and he was buried in another cave. He had no house to be born or to die. He was rejected by the public and Jewish authorities at his birth and death. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes at his birth and in a burial cloth during his entombment. His mother Mary had hardships at his birth and death.

Time of birth
We observe the birth of Jesus on December 24th evening when the daytime hours begin to increase daily. This is in contrast to the birthday observance of John the Baptist which is six months prior to Christmas, June 24th when the days begin to decrease. This is corresponding to what John the Baptist said, “He must increase and I must decrease.” (John 3: 30).

Virgin Birth
The ever virgin motherhood of Mary is a miracle. Fathers of the Church taught that Jesus was born while his mother’s womb was closed. This is compared to sun rays penetrating through glass. Since Blessed Virgin Mary was born free from original sin, she was exempt from the punishment God gave to Eve, “I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” (Genesis 3:16). So Fathers of the Church believed that Mary was free from pain when she gave birth to Jesus.

(8) Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.

Shepherds welcoming the Good Shepherd
Bethlehem being close to Jerusalem was also an area for rearing sheep for sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem. Besides the sacrifice of many lambs on the feast days, an unblemished lamb was sacrificed every morning and evening. Angels invited shepherds and their sacrificial lambs when the divine shepherd and final lamb for sacrifice was born.

David was also a shepherd boy at the same location when he was called to be the future King of Israel. Jesus, the promised eternal king of the universe was born in the native place of David and known as the “Son of David.”

The announcement of the birth of Jesus did not happen to the high priest or the king, but to the humble shepherds who were of low social and religious status. The orthodox people despised them because they were not able to keep all the religious laws of the time. In the Canticle of Mary, she had mentioned how God favors the lowly and lifting them up while throwing down the rulers. (Luke 1:48, 52).

The patriarchs of the Old Testament like Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses were also shepherds to whom the Lord or the Angel of the Lord appeared.

(9) The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.

“The angel of the Lord” is different from regular angels. This is a divine presence along with the manifestation of the glory of the Lord. Seeing the glory of the Lord in this world is terrifying because it is incomparable with anything on the earth. All who had vision of the glory of God or the Angel of the Lord were afraid at first. Some Fathers believe that this angel was Gabriel who appeared earlier to Zechariah and to Mary.

(10) The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

Do not be afraid
Fear is a normal response to an extraordinary vision.

A joy for all people
Starting with Israel, the salvation was going to be open for all. Unlike temporary happiness, the lost and everlasting joy of the Garden of Eden was going to be restored.

(11) For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.

Tiitles of Jesus
The angel announces the birth of Jesus and describes him in three words: Savior, Messiah and Lord. As savior, Jesus liberated humanity from sin and united with God. Messiah in Greek and Christ in Hebrew means the anointed. The priests, kings, and prophets were anointed with oil. Jesus is the anointed in all these roles. Lord is applied to Jesus and to Yahweh. So Jesus is God incarnate.

(12) And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

No other child in the world would be seen in a manger inside an animal shelter. So this became a sign for the shepherds to identify the newborn “Son of God.”

(13) And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:

After the angel of the Lord spoke there was the sudden appreance of a multitude of heavenly hosts. Since the heaven came down to the earth by the birth of Jesus, the heavenly hosts had to come down praising the Lord.

According to the local practice of the time, when a boy was born, the local musicians used to gather and greet the child with some music. That was missing when Jesus was born in an unusual place. However, God provided for it by sending his heavenly hosts to do the song. Shepherds were witnesses to this.

(14) “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

We sing this at the beginning of the Holy Mass reminding the birth of Jesus and the song of the angels. There are three elements in this song:
(1) Declaration of the glory of God. Psalm 19:1 states: “Heavens proclaim the glory of God.”
(2) Peace has come to the earth. In Jesus, the Heaven has come down to the earth to establish peace because we are freed from the bondage of sin.
(3) Peace to those who have good will or to those whom God favors. These are two versions of the translation. Both have different shades of meaning. Peace comes to those who are good in doing the will of God. Even when we do so, God’s favor is not our merit. God favored some like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Mary and Joseph though there were many others who also did the will of God.

(15) When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

The shepherds made a collective decision to go and seek Jesus. They trusted what the Angel of the Lord told them. They considered it as the message from God. We need to trust the representatives of God and go to church for communal worship where Jesus humbly comes down and offers sacrifice for us.

(16) So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.

The shepherds were enthusiastic in going and worshipping the Lord. The Lord is to be sought in haste. They found God in human flesh as an innocent child lying in a manger. They had no difficulty in believing and welcoming such a humble God.

(17) When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.

The shepherds become the first evangelizers of Jesus. They had an extraordinary experience that they could not hold within their heart. So they shared that to whoever they could. Since they were of low status in the society, only people close to their status would listen to them and believe in their message.

(18) All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.

What would be the subject of the amazement of those who heard the shepherds?
1. How could the Messiah be born in such helpless situation?
2. Why the message was communicated to the humble shepherds?
3. Why it was not communicated through the official channel like high priest or king?
Many might have visited the infant Jesus based on the witnessing of the shepherds. But only the humble could accept him as the “Son of God.”

(19) And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

The Evangelist Luke who interviewed Mary, to write his gospel and Acts of the Apostles, knew how clear all the visions, experiences, and witnessing associated with the birth of Jesus and thereafter were in the minds of Mary. Luke gives more infancy narrative of Jesus than the other evangelists. Mary was the firsthand source to give these details. Mary who had good knowledge of the Holy Scripture from her training in the Temple of Jerusalem, realized that all the prophesies about the Messiah was coming true at her sight. So she kept reflecting on them in her heart.

(20) Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

The shepherds had witnessed exactly what the Angel of the Lord had told them. They became the first believers in the Messiah. When they came to know of Jesus their reaction was to glorify and praise God just as Zechariah glorified and praised God when his mouth was opened after naming his son John.

 Message

1. Jesus associated humility with holiness
Jesus was humble throughout his life on earth. Jesus taught us to see God in the poor and those who need assistance. At the final judgement, we will be rewarded or punished based on our actions of mercy or negligence. While adopting the humility of Jesus, we need to teach our children the value of humility from their young age.

2. Prefer eternal joy to temporal happiness
We need to be humble like the shepherds to receive the joy of Christmas. The poor received the message of Christ than the rich. Even the Christians who become rich, eventually rejects Jesus and occupies with their selfish interests. Thus they reject perpetual joy and seek temporary happiness that will lead them to everlasting discontent.

3. The call of Joseph and Mary was not for comfort of this world
Though called for a noble task, life of Joseph and Mary were not comfortable in this world. Like the parents of Jesus, we too have a mission in this world for him. In Mathew 12: 48-50 Jesus said: “’Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.’” We are not called for a comfortable life but for a sacrificial life for Jesus. Only after the passion and death comes the resurrection.

4. If you cannot accept the humble in the world, you cannot see God
The kings, priests, and noble people were not able to see the Messiah in Jesus because they were expecting Jesus in a palace, mansion or in the temple. But Jesus came in a manger among the animals and worshipped by poor shepherds. That is where we need to seek Jesus.

5. Find joy in supporting the less fortunate
Even today many children are born in poverty, in sickness, and with disabilities. There are parents like Joseph and Mary who struggle to protect and bring up their children. Let us see Jesus among them and find joy in supporting them and the missionaries who like shepherds communicate the love and redemption of Jesus to people living in adverse circumstances.