SET 2: Season of Nativity
Christmas teaches us the value of humility by showing the humble beginning of Jesus’s life in this world. His birth was in an animal shelter probably in the winter. Jesus told Nicodemus: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life” (Jn 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.
(Luke 2:1) At that time the Emperor Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. (2) This first census was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. (3) Everyone went to his own town to be registered. (4) Joseph too set out from Nazareth of Galilee. As he belonged to the family of David, being a descendant of his, he went to Judea to David’s town of Bethlehem (5) to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. (6) They were in Bethlehem when the time came for her to have her child, (7) and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
(8) There were shepherds camping in the countryside nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. (9) Suddenly an Angel of the Lord appeared to them, with the glory of the Lord shining around them. As they were terrified, (10) the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; I am here to give you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. (11) Today a Savior has been born to you in David’s town; he is Christ the Lord. (12) Let this be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (13) Suddenly the angel was surrounded by a great multitude of angels from heaven, praising God and saying, (14) ”Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to all in whom he delights.”
(1) At that time, the Emperor Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken.
The Emperor Caesar Augustus
Caesar Augustus 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 Caesar in 43 BC, he had selected to name his sister’s son Gaius Octavius as his successor. He later got the name, Caesar Augustus. Caesar defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC and afterwards gained control over Rome and its extensive territories. He became emperor in 27 BC and the senate gave him the honorary title Augustus. Augustus means ‘majestic.’ During his reign, he brought peace and prosperity to the empire.
During those days, there was no common religion. People considered the emperor as a god or son of god. Greek inscriptions reveal that the people accepted Augustus as “saviour” 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, the Evangelist Luke presents in the child Jesus, the true God and Saviour who brought peace into the world.
A census of the whole world
The census happened at a peaceful time. The Roman Empire was vast and composed of most of the known world. Hence “The whole world” can also mean all people in the emperor’s domain. The emperor took a periodic census every 14 years for taxation purposes and also to count those eligible for military service.
(2) This first census was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
The First census
Quirinius did a second census nine years after Jesus’ birth when Judea was only a Roman province. The evangelist specifies that Jesus was born during the first enrolment when Quirinius was the governor of Syria and not during his second census.
A Historical Account
When Jesus was born, Judea was part of the Syrian province. Luke gives the names of the Roman emperor and Syrian governor to confirm that Jesus is a historic person.
Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because of the universal census taken under the order of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. That fulfilled the prophecy in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the City of David. The prophecy would have failed if the emperor did not introduce the census or if Joseph and Mary had delayed their journey to Bethlehem.
(3) Everyone went to his own town to be registered.
The Roman custom was to register in one’s own domicile because the pagans did not care about their ancestry. Whereas the Israelites kept their genealogy tracing back to the 12 sons of Jacob. Since they register the census according to their tribes and clans, they had to go to their own native land.
Joseph, the nominal father of Jesus, was a descendant of David’s son Solomon. Mary was a descendant of King David’s son Nathan. So, we have two genealogical accounts of Jesus through the ancestral lines of Joseph by Matthew and of Mary by Luke. These show that Jesus is the “Son of David” from both by blood (Mary) and by right (Joseph).
Since the ancestors of Joseph and Mary were from Bethlehem, the birthplace of David, they had to go there for the census. They travelled over 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which took many days.
(4) Joseph too set out from Nazareth of Galilee. As he belonged to the family of David, being a descendant of his, he went to Judea to David’s town of Bethlehem.
Went up from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
On the map, Bethlehem is below or south of Nazareth. The text could be “went down from Nazareth.” Bethlehem that is near Jerusalem is at a high altitude than Nazareth in Galilee. So, one who travels from the north to the south was climbing up. Joseph and Mary felt the climbing more difficult because Mary was weak.
Bethlehem means “the house of bread” because it was a fertile area for agriculture and animal rearing. Jesus who said, “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven” (Jn 6:51a), was born in that house of bread that produced food for the Jews.
An escape from Herod
Joseph and Mary’s temporary dwelling in Bethlehem far south from Galilee was God’s providential arrangement. The Holy Family would later escape to Egypt to protect the infant Jesus from the threat of Herod the Great who wanted to assassinate the Holy Child.
(5) … to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
Why the Evangelist Luke uses the term “betrothed” for Joseph and Mary even now? Joseph had married Mary by this time because he took her to his home, equivalent to the wedding (Mt 1:24). However, they did not consummate their marriage because of the virgin birth. Hence, the evangelist continued to use the term “betrothed” to assure that the child is not of Joseph, and Mary is still a virgin.
(6) They were in Bethlehem when 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 delivery happened in Nazareth, it would, of course, have happened in their own home under the supervision of a midwife and with the support of family, relatives, and friends.
(7) And she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
According to Jewish Law, the firstborn son had special duties and privileges. He shall inherit a double share of his father’s property (Deut 21:17). Parents should offer him to God and then redeem him (Num 18:15-16). Even if the parents have only one son, yet they consider him as the firstborn. So, the parents of Jesus presenting him to God as firstborn does not imply that Mary had other sons.
Wisdom 7:4 narrates that King David’s son Solomon was wrapped in swaddling clothes when he was born. Mary wrapped Jesus, the “Son of David” in the same manner. She had to do this herself because there was none to help her other than Joseph.
The manger was a feeding holder for animals. That was the only available place to hold the Baby Jesus with straw forming a warm bed. The ox and ass facing the manger could warm the baby in the winter. Fathers of the church refer this to Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its master and the ass its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (http://www.usccb.org/bible/isaiah/1-29001003-b). Most of the Israelites could not understand the Messiah born in a cattle-shed and resting in a manger.
No room in the inn
Because of Mary’s advanced pregnancy, Joseph and Mary travelled slowly. So, they could not reach in time to get accommodation in an inn. The inns of those times would be primitive shelters with accommodation for travelers and their animals. According to Biblical scholars, Bethlehem being a minor city had only one inn.
Parallelism of birth and death of Jesus
The birth and burial of Jesus were in caves. He had no house to be born or to die. The public and Jewish authorities rejected Jesus at his birth and death. Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes at his birth. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped him in a burial cloth during his entombment. His mother Mary had hardships at his birth and death.
The time of birth
We observe the birth of Jesus on December 24th evening when the daytime hours begin to increase. This contrasts with the birthday observance of John the Baptist, which is six months before Christmas, June 24th, when the day length decreases. This is corresponding to what John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
The virgin birth
From the gospel accounts it is not clear how Mary gave birth to Jesus without losing her virginity. The Theologians differ in assuming how this happened. Regardless of whether Jesus’ birth was by opening the womb of Mary by a normal childbirth or by a miraculous birth without opening the womb of Mary does not affect the virginity of Mary because the virginity is morally lost not by birth or by any other cause, but by sexual union. In Mary’s case, this did not happen. Mary, in her apparition in Mexico on 12 December, 1531 to Juan Bernardino, said that the church should title her as “The Ever Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe.” Thus, she herself has revealed her virginity (https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/mary/popular-marian-devotions/our-lady-of-guadalupe).
Some Theologians interpret that Jesus was born while his mother’s womb was closed. They compare it to sun rays penetrating through the glass. According to this concept, Blessed Virgin Mary was born free from original sin, she was exempt from the punishment God gave to Eve, “I will increase your suffering in child-bearing, and you will give birth to your children in pain” (Gen 3:16). So, they believed that Mary was free from pain when she gave birth to Jesus.
(8) There were shepherds camping in the countryside nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
Shepherds welcomed the Good Shepherd.
Bethlehem, being close to Jerusalem, was a sheep rearing area for sacrifices in the Temple. Besides the sacrifice of many lambs on the feast days, the priests sacrificed an unblemished lamb every morning and evening. Angels invited the shepherds and their sacrificial lambs when the divine shepherd, the last lamb of sacrifice was born.
David was also a shepherd boy at the same location when Samuel anointed him as the future King of Israel. Jesus, the “Son of David” and the promised eternal king of the universe, was born in David’s native place.
The birth announcement of the Messiah did not happen to the High Priest or King Herod, but to the humble shepherds who were of low social and religious status. The orthodox people despised the shepherds because they could not keep the religious laws and rituals. In the Canticle of Mary, she sings: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1:52). The stalwarts of the Old Testament like Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses were also shepherds.
(9) Suddenly an Angel of the Lord appeared to them, with the glory of the Lord shining around them. As they were terrified…
“The angel of the Lord” differs from regular angels. His presence manifests a divine presence along with 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. The vision of God’s glory or the Angel of the Lord frightened the visionaries at first. Some Fathers believe that this angel was Gabriel, who appeared earlier to Zechariah and Mary.
(10) The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; I am here to give 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 that Jesus brought was open for all. Unlike temporary happiness, it will restore the lost everlasting joy of the Garden of Eden.
(11) Today a Savior has been born to you in David’s town; he is Christ the Lord.
Titles of Jesus
The angel announced the birth of Jesus and described him in three words: Saviour, Messiah, and the Lord. As saviour, Jesus liberated humanity from Original Sin and reconciled it with God. Messiah in Greek and Christ in Hebrew means the anointed. The persons anointed with oil were priests, kings, and prophets. God anointed Jesus in all these roles. The angel used the word Lord, used for Yahweh, also for Jesus. So, Jesus is the God incarnate.
(12) “Let this be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
The world will not see another child born in a manger inside an animal shelter. So, this became a sign for the shepherds to identify the newborn “Son of God.”
(13) Suddenly the angel was surrounded by a great multitude of angels from heaven, praising God and saying…
After the Angel of the Lord spoke, there was the sudden appearance of a multitude of heavenly hosts. Since the very heaven came down to the earth by Jesus’ birth, the heavenly hosts also descended praising the Lord.
According to the local practice of the time, when a boy is born, the local musicians gather and greet the child with music. That was missing when Jesus was born sans pomp and ceremony. However, God compensated for it by sending a heavenly choir to sing. Shepherds were witnesses to this.
(14) “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to all in whom he delights.”