One of the topics parents of young children love to talk about is the day their babies were born or adopted. Parents can talk for hours about all the details. There is always a story worth telling from that much-anticipated day. I admit I still like to tell the stories of the days my children were born.
Think of Luke 2 in the genre of that kind of story. Just like most birth stories, someone sets the stage. The storyteller describes the setting….the back seat of a car; a hospital room with a nurse that reminds them of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; a lawyer’s office. They tell us their circumstances…they already had two children; they were going to graduate school and had so little income; they had been through years of infertility treatments; they had waited years for the news of a possible adoption and been disappointed many times.
So Luke sets the stage for Jesus’ birth story like this:
In those days 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. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
Luke sets the scene by having Roman trumpets heralding an imperial order from Caesar Augustus. This was during Caesar’s reign when Quirinius was governor of Syria after Herod Archelaus was already banished. The trumpets blare and the empire jumps to attention under Roman domination. One man, as long as he is Caesar, has the power to make everyone stand up straight and do his bidding. The ruler of the empire was demanding order for his Pax Romana….Roman imposed peace.
Luke wants us to know that this birth story takes place when Caesar Augustus had ordered a census. He had a tax plan but it only worked if he knew the names of everyone he could tax. He wanted to make sure everyone ponied up for the empire.
So now that we understand the political setting Luke moves on to tell us about the parents. They were not Romans. No, this birth is about to take place in a poor Jewish family who lives on the outskirts of the empire, where order is maintained by any means necessary. Subjugated to the whims, rages and taxes of distant Roman rulers this poor couple has to make a journey to another town, also on the periphery of the empire, so that they can be registered in order to pay taxes that will benefit the good of wealthy people they will never see or know.
The father was a Jewish man named Joseph who traced his family lineage to the town of Bethlehem, the home of David. And so, Joseph and his betrothed became moveable pieces in the grand scheme of the empire. They had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the census. The woman’s name was Mary. She was pregnant and her doctor had warned her not to travel but the empire isn’t known for its compassion.
That is the setting, according to Luke. Here is the birth story:
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
And so, when the time came, when the water broke and the labor pains began, Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem. They weren’t staying in the inn because it was packed. They were staying in a stable with the animals.
In the empire where order is maintained at all costs, the main event takes place far away from the centers of power. It happens in the little town of Bethlehem on the fringe of society, where a scared teenage girl and her betrothed can’t find a decent place to give birth to their firstborn. So there they are welcoming their child in the stench of the stable.
I know we make it look like Mary just starched and ironed her clothes before having a makeover at Sephora. But if you have seen a woman right after eight hours of labor you know that all our Christmas cards depict this scene incorrectly. In an empire of order and opulence, the main stage’s principal characters are a woman, pale and overwrought from labor with her sweaty hair pasted to her forehead and a man who looks so relieved that he was able to help his betrothed birth a baby with cows assisting. That is the image….now imagine the smell. If you are having a hard time doing that the nativity scene is covered with the same odor as we had here a few Sundays ago when the city sewer backed up into our downstairs rooms.
The important question is why did Luke choose to tell the story this way? It is always a good question to ask ourselves when reading the Bible: Why tell the story this way? I think Luke is making a point because Luke is always making a point.
Frederick Buechner in his book Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who writes about Caesar Augustus like this:
Caesar…ruled Rome and thus virtually the whole civilized world. He was worshiped as a god. People burned incense to him. Insofar as he is remembered at all, most people remember him mainly because at some point during his reign, in a rundown section of one of the more obscure imperial provinces, out behind a cheesy motel among cowflops and moldy hay, a child was born to a pair of up-country rubes you could have sold the Brooklyn Bridge to without even trying.
Buechner also thinks that Luke is making a point and here it is: The birth of Jesus is an indictment on the empire and the false order and power it tries to place on top of this vulnerable and fragile world. The empire thinks it is in charge. It thinks it is the most important thing going. It thinks that Caesar is Lord and it is the center of the universe. But the truth is completely the opposite. While Roman orators and poets are crafting their words to announce the arrival of peace on earth through the birth of the next emperor, God is showing up in the ordinary…in the muck and mess of real life. The redemptive story is actually happening on the fringe of society, where it always happens. God is coming to earth in the places we walk quickly past. The King of Kings was not born in the palace but in a stable. Love came down in Bethlehem, not Rome. The Light of the World was covered in the stench of animals not cared for by royal attendants. Heavenly angels sang to sheep, not to those gathered in the Temple of Janus. And now, over two millennia later, the Roman Empire has crumbled. People line up to walk through the ruins of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Caesar Augustus is remembered almost exclusively for being mentioned in the birth story of a peasant boy named Jesus. Empires always fade only to be replaced with new ones, which will also eventually fail.
This perspective, from further out, switches everything on its head. We think of Bethlehem as being on the outskirts but if God is born there, then it becomes the center and Rome is the city on the periphery.
That is one way to look at this story and I think it has some merit. But there is another way. Nicholas of Cusa, a German philosopher from the 15th century wrote: “God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The Word didn’t become flesh so that God could inform us who is in and who is out….who resides in the center and who is banished to the periphery. No. The Word became flesh to let us know that nothing is outside of God’s embrace…not Bethlehem or even Rome.
“God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” It is like that benediction we often say here…there is nowhere you can go that God is not. That is the message of Christmas. God comes to us….Immanuel….God with us….wherever we are. There is no circumference when it comes to God. Amen.
 Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1979), p. 18.