” . . . he was descended from the house and family of David” Luke 2:3
Gathering on Christmas Eve 2015, what does the story we read this night say to us? Is it a tale of events a long time ago in land far away, or are the words as fresh now as when they were written? If we watched the television news this evening and then listened to the words of the Gospel reading, would we connect the two?
In Saint Luke Chapter 2 Verse 1, we read, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Luke is saying that this story is taking place on a world stage, that what happens is an event that affects all the world. When we hear the story, do we have the confidence that Luke showed? Do we believe that what we see on the television news and what we hear in church are connected? The Emperor Augustus ruled the greatest empire the world had known, his decrees governed every part of that empire, but Luke includes even the emperor as part of the story. Jesus was born onto a world stage and our faith as Christians should not only shape how we see the world in which we live, but should also should help shape how that world actually lives.
Verse 2 tells us, “This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” The story has stepped down a level, from the global to what we might considered the “national”, though few Judeans would have liked the idea that their region had been added to the province of Syria for administrative purposes. Would Saint Luke have been aware of the tensions? Would his reference to the governorship of Quirinius have stirred up feeling among those who heard his words? Would there have been a reminder of old resentments? The Jewish people had hated the pagan Quirinius and they resented censuses which were against their Law; Saint Luke places the birth of Jesus against the political tensions of the time. Do we see politics in our own time in the light of our faith in Jesus? When we think about politicians, when we go to vote, do we think about how we as Christians should see the issues?
The global, the national, the story then steps down to the regional level, Verses 3-4 say, “All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea.” Galileans were instantly noticeable by their accents, we know that from the story of the arrest of Jesus and Peter being known as a friend of Jesus from the way he spoke. What tensions might there have been at the time of the census? How did the people of Judea feel about the arrival of outsiders, outsiders looking for accommodation, outsiders whose presence would have pushed up all the prices. How would Galileans have been regarded, as bringing problems, as troublemakers, as people to blame? Were the story taking place in our time, how would we see the arrival of strangers in our area? Would we give them a welcome warmer than that received by those who arrived in Judea from Galilee?
Again, we step down a further level, from the regional level to the local level, Verse 4 tells us they came to “the city of David called Bethlehem.” What was it like at the local level? Great decisions may be taken at global and national levels, decisions that might cause debate and controversy, but decisions at those levels are about ideas, policies, principles, it is when we reach the local level that we see the impact on ordinary people. The people of Bethlehem seem not have been happy about the decision to hold a census, for there is no evidence that they took measures to prepare for an influx of people. Did Mary and Joseph walk through the street being watched by hostile eyes? What did they feel about Bethlehem as they went to door after door in search of accommodation? If Mary and Joseph came into our community, what welcome would they receive? A young couple from the Middle East, the young woman heavily pregnant, can we honestly say our welcome would be warmer than the one they received in Bethlehem?
From global level in Verse 1, we reach personal level in Verse 4, Saint Luke tells us that Joseph “was descended from the house and family of David.” What were the personal responses to Mary and Joseph? What things did people think about them? What did they say to their neighbours? Wasn’t there enough kindness in the heart of anyone to find them somewhere to rest? Wasn’t there anyone who would lend them a room where a baby might be born? How do we respond? How do we respond to the Christmas story? How do we respond to Jesus?
Faith begins at a personal level. It is when we respond personally that it becomes possible to become Christians at other levels. We can respond as Christians at local, regional, national and global levels, when we decide ourselves that we will welcome Jesus, when we make the words from O little town of Bethlehem our own personal prayer:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
May he be welcome in our hearts this Christmas.