SET 2: Season of Nativity
Christmas teaches us the value of humility by showing the humble beginnings of Jesus’ life on Earth. His birth was in an animal shelter during 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). At Christmas, we see the immensity of the love of God in His very act of sending His Son into our midst as He had promised. Jesus continued this humility and self-sacrifice throughout his life and in the manner of his death. Jesus taught us the value of humble service for God and His people who need 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 the 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 elected 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 god or as a 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 the most 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 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 Judaea 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, Judaea was part of the Syrian province. Luke gives the names of the Roman emperor and Syrian governor to imply and confirm that Jesus is a historic figure.
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 had not introduced 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 had to register the census according to their tribes and clans, they had to go to their own native land.
Joseph, the foster 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 150 km from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey that would have definitely taken 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 Judaea 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 read “went down from Nazareth.” Bethlehem, which is near Jerusalem, is at a higher altitude than Nazareth in Galilee. So, the one travelling from the north to the south was climbing up. Joseph and Mary would have obviously been weak especially on account of her pregnancy which must have made climbing more difficult.
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 of 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 does the Evangelist Luke use the term “betrothed” for Joseph and Mary even now? Joseph had married Mary by this time because he took her to his home, which was equivalent to a wedding (Mt 1:24). However, they did not consummate their marriage because of the virgin birth. Hence, the evangelist continues to use the term “betrothed” in assurance of the fact that the child is not of Joseph, and that 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 lasting several days. Then it was time for Mary to give birth to her son. What a trying situation for the Holy Family! Had the delivery taken place in Nazareth, it would 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 their firstborn does not necessarily 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 feed holder or feeding trough 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. The Fathers of the Church link 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.” 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 travellers and their animals. According to Biblical scholars, Bethlehem, being a minor city, had only one inn.
Parallelism of the 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 faced hardships at his birth and death.
The time of birth
We observe the birth of Jesus on 24 December evening when the daytime hours begin to increase. This contrasts with the birthday observance of John the Baptist, which is six months before Christmas, i.e. 24 June, when the day-length decreases. This corresponds with what John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
The virgin birth
The virginity is morally lost not by giving 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.
(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 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 the 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 earth. The vision of God’s glory or the Angel of the Lord frightened the visionaries at first. Some Fathers believe 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 to all. Unlike temporary happiness, it will restore the lost, everlasting joy of the Garden of Eden.
(11) Today a Saviour 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 Heaven per se came down to Earth in Jesus’ birth, the heavenly hosts also descended in fulsome praise of the Lord.
According to the local practice of the time, when a boy was born, the local musicians gathered and greeted 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.”
The Syro-Malabar Holy Qurbana (Mass) starts with singing this song, recalling the birth of Jesus along with the song of the angels.
There are three elements in this song:
1. Declaration of the glory of God. Psalm 19:1 states: “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
2. Peace has come to the Earth. In Jesus, Heaven has veritably come down to Earth to establish peace by freeing humanity from the bondage of sin.
3. Peace to people of goodwill or those whom God favours. These are two versions of the translation. Both have distinct shades of meaning. God delighted in those who did His will, like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Mary, and Joseph. Similarly, peace comes to those who do the will of God. Even when we do so, peace is not because of our merit but God’s favour.
1. Jesus associated humility with holiness.
Jesus was humble throughout his life on earth. He taught us to see God in the poor and those who need our help. While adopting the humility of Jesus, we must teach our children the value of humility from an early age.
2. Prefer eternal joy to temporal happiness.
We must be humble, like the shepherds, to receive and cherish the joy of Christmas. The poor received the message of Christ rather than the rich. Some Christians, when they prosper materially, reject Jesus and occupy themselves with their selfish interests. Thus, they reject perpetual joy and seek temporary happiness that will only lead them to everlasting discontent.
3. The call of Joseph and Mary was not for comfort in this world.
Though called for a noble task, the lives of Joseph and Mary were hard in this world. Like the parents of Jesus, we too have a mission in this world for him. Jesus said: “‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ Then he pointed to his disciples and said, ‘Look! Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, my sister, and my mother’” (Mt 12:48-50). Our Christian call is not to a comfortable life, but to a sacrificial life for Jesus and his Church. Only after the passion and death came the resurrection.
4. If you cannot accept the humble in the world, you cannot see God.
King Herod, the High Priests, and the Scribes could not recognize the Messiah in the Infant Jesus because they were expecting him to be born in a palace, mansion, or in the Temple. But Jesus came in a manger among the animals and was worshipped by poor shepherds. We must seek Jesus and God’s people in such humble circumstances.
5. Find joy in supporting the less fortunate.
Even today, children are born in poverty, sickness, or with disabilities. There are parents like Joseph and Mary who struggle to protect and bring up their children. Let us see the Holy Family in them and find joy in helping them. Let us also support the missionaries, who, like the shepherds, communicate the love and redemption of Jesus to people living in adverse circumstances.