Monday, December 20, 2021
Katie Snipes Lancaster
Luke 2:1–4 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
Reflection on the Nativity
The angelic announcement to Zechariah and Mary is now in the background, with Mary and Zechariah both offering up their own songs to God (her’s called the Magnificat, his is the Benedictus). In the very near future, another angel visits and a song arises, this time to the shepherds in their field, with a “great company of the heavenly host” singing. Here at the beginning of chapter two, Luke simply sets the scene.
The scene is set, not just in Bethlehem, but with an even wider view of the Roman Empire. The center of power is Rome, 2,500 miles from Bethlehem. The ruler is Caesar. His power spreads across land and sea, and Luke is signaling the way in which Caesar’s rule reaches far beyond the Italian peninsula, causing Mary and Joseph to travel far from home without promise of secure housing when Mary is nearing the end of her unexpected pregnancy. A complicated scene that highlights just how much power imperial Rome has over those of low status.
Scholar Marcus Borg urges us to pay close attention here. The parallels between the emperor of Rome and the soon to be born Lord of Lords and King of Kings will be unmistakable if we have just a little bit of historical context. Marcus Borg, for example, reminds us “in an inscription from 9 C.E. found in Asia Minor, Caesar is spoken of as ‘our God’ and as a ‘savior’ who brought ‘peace’ throughout the earth, and whose birth was ‘good news’ to the world. In other texts, he is also spoken of as divine and as descended from a divine/human conception.” This story is set in a context where the language we use about this baby-to-be-born is coopted from the same political powerhouse that pushed Mary and Joseph to travel far from home on the cusp of his birth.
In his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, John T. Carroll gives us one last insight into this beginning of chapter two. He says that historically, a census might incite an insurrection: it triggers a reminder of who is in charge (forcing people to travel at their own expense to their historical home towns instead of simply taking a census survey from the comforts of their homes like we did in 2020). Those who do not like Rome’s power might find such a power-play to be unwelcome and thus attempt to overthrow the government (likely unsuccessfully given Rome’s military might, but still violence would unfold). So Luke, Carroll proposes, mentions the census four times in five verses, highlighting the potential for political instability, but all the while Luke shows how Mary and Joseph go along with the census rigmarole anyway, suggesting that God’s purposes can be worked out without the violence of an insurrection. In Luke, Mary’s Magnificat points to social revolution and Zechariah’s Benedictus features rescue from one’s enemies, but neither of these songs demand terrorism, insurgency, revolt, or mutiny. Rather the Gospel of Luke pulls us into this tension between Caesar’s story and God’s story in order to show us that God’s story gets worked out in radical ways in out of the way places. In Carroll’s words, “imperial Rome is not the whole story,” and God’s realm is powerful far beyond the reach of empire. So we await the wider story of divine unfolding.
How then do we pray? It begs a thousand more questions. Where are our own political tensions? Where are the tensions between empire and the Kingdom of God in our own world? Where are the out of the way places where we might anticipate God’s song unfolding at midnight to the lowest-of-the-low? Where are the powerful causing the powerless to travel far from home? In what ways are we at the center (or on the margins) of God’s story? How can we pay attention to the power dynamics at play in our own lives as a way of paying attention to the presence of the divine? Much to ponder as we reflect on the nativity in Luke.
Praying the Nativity
God of wonder and delight,
your presence encircles us
your nearness ever-present.
Help us to unfold the mystery of this season,
caught in the many tensions of this life.
Be with us as we seek you
and strive for your kingdom.