Christmas 2008 – Luke 2:1-20 * The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter’s at Ellicott Mills
Details, Details, Details
It’s all in the details of this story, but they are so easy to miss. Yet, attention to the details can completely change the way we enter into this story
For instance, Luke tells us that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus. What do we know about him? As founder of the Roman Empire, Augustus brought Peace to the world by putting an end to the wars after Julius Caesar was murdered. The Age of Augustus was called the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. He was hailed as, “Savior of the World.” Also regarded as a god, one ancient inscription reads, “The Birthday of the God was for the world the beginning of good news (ie tidings, gospel, euangelion) of Joy on his account.”
Place that beside the greeting of the angel to the shepherds in Luke, “Be not afraid, for behold I bring you good news (tidings, euangelion) of a great joy which will come to all people ; for to you this is the birthday in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
A little counter-point to the Pax Romana, which of course was enforced by military might – if you are looking for a savior, writes Luke, you now have a choice: Augustus the “savior of the world,” or Christ the Lord, the savior of “all people.”
Sounds as if Luke is doing more than setting the time and place – by mentioning Augustus he is making a political statement as well. Not all that much has changed in two thousand years. Those of us who desire to live into this story of Christ the Lord still have a choice to make as to just where our commitments lie: Caesar or Christ. Those in Luke’s original audience who did not have the benefit of the crèche or the Christmas Pageant to domesticate what from the git-go can be seen as a test of wills: the will of the Empire versus God’s will, God’s Son, God’s Savior. It’s all in the details.
And what about “the inn?” I am embarrassed to say after four years of an undergraduate degree in Religion, three years in Seminary, studying both Hebrew and Greek, only recently did I discover that the word in chapter two of Luke translated as “the inn” really means “the guest room.”
You know, that spare room where you store all the extra stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else in the house, but that you clear out every time a relative or guest shows up from out of town? Remember, Joseph was from Bethlehem, the City of David the Shepherd King. As a young man he moved about as far away from home as one could get and still be in Israel – Nazareth. Nazareth was not just a few miles down the road from Bethlehem as it is in Pennsylvania! It was about 70 miles as the crow flies, four to seven days journey by foot and donkey, with possible stop-overs in Megiddo, Ibleam, Shechem, Shiloh, Ai and Jerusalem. That’s Megiddo as in Armageddon, Shechem as in where Abraham sat ‘neath the Oak at Moreh and where the tomb of Joseph was located, and so on – tourist stops and shrines for a traveling Israeli.
Of all the relatives of David the Shepherd King, it seems as if Joseph had the furthest to go to report for the census of Augustus, god and savior of the world. No doubt by the time he and Mary arrived all the guest rooms in all his relative’s homes were already filled with a great many other cousins, aunts, uncles and the like. The homes were often built in a square around a central courtyard, with the animals living in one side of the square. Evidently one kindly relative, not the long-reviled inn-keeper, said, “Look you guys, even though the guest room is filled, the room with the animals is probably the warmest place in the house on a cold December (which of course had not been invented yet!) night such as this. Why don’t you snuggle up with those wooly sheep and goats, burrow into the straw, what with Mary in the shape she’s in and all.” Kind of changes the whole scene when we see how it is that family takes care of family. With Jesus it seems it is always that way: a few days later total strangers like Anna and Simeon act like family with him, and all throughout Luke’s good news of Christ the Lord He seems to adopt everyone as family - even you and me through Baptism and Eucharist.
Which would be the last detail we will touch upon. (Whew, it’s almost over and time to head back to the egg nog!) As you know, they place the baby Christ the Lord in a manger, which is a feeding trough. In nursery school Chapel we call it “a cow’s cereal bowl,” which is not too bad a description of where the Son of God lies. I cannot hear the word “trough” without recalling Kurt Vonnegut’s image of people slurping at the money trough – an apt metaphor what’s going on all around us today!
The manger would be made of wood, which points the alert listener to the cross near the end of the story. The hard wood of the manger is the hard wood of the cross. But of course we are those people who know the cross is not the end of the story by a long shot! Luke may also be signaling the reader of the Good News of Christ the Lord to associate the feeding trough with the table – you know, as in the Last Supper table, which by the way is the one place the word “guest room” comes up again. The upper room of the Last Supper was “the guest room.”
The baby resting in the manger, in the feed trough, is the one destined to become “the bread of God…which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” He is “the bread of life.” (John 6:33,35) Think of the manger as foreshadowing – since it foreshadows the very fact of our being here tonight and nowhere else to share Eucharist, thanksgiving! Here is yet another contrast: the Bread of Life arrives humble in an animal’s feeding trough while the managers of the Empire slurp at the money trough! Makes one ask, “Where am I fed?”
Someone once wrote that human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice; animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the sly. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ the Lord must be born and in their very manger He must be laid – and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God. The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves: it is because His manifestation in the world must be through us. We are to ponder this truth.
Each time we gather at this table, we come to remember the mystery of the Good News of Christ the Lord, Savior of the world and All people. Without reminders like the manger and the bread and the wine it becomes almost incomprehensible that God took on human form, lived among us, suffered for us, died and was raised that we might know true life in this world and the next.
And so it is on Christmas that we gather at His table, our feeding trough, to feed on his body and his blood in order that we might just as mysteriously live as His Body in the world – the Church. Somehow we become the very means by which he is the Savior of all people, not just the people of the empire.
These details – Augustus, guest room, feeding trough - invite us to join with Mary, ponder these things in our hearts until we know that He is alive in us. Like the shepherds let us rejoice and tell the whole world what we have seen and heard this night. It is just as it has been told to us – the babe in the manger is Christ the Lord! Tell it out to all the world! A world that still yearns for Good News of Glad Tidings waits for us to proclaim the Good News of Christ the Lord in all that we do and all that we say. Merry Christmas! God bless us everyone!