Christmas Mass during the Nite
Dec. 25, 2013
Luke 2: 1-14
Wartburg Home, Mt. Vernon
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus” (Luke 2: 1).
“In those days” refers to what St. Luke has already narrated, viz., the birth of JB and Mary’s conception of the Son of God.
|The crèche in our chapel (2007)|
Unfortunately, despite his efforts to provide some historical context, Luke is still rather vague, considering that Augustus reigned from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. and the historical record of P. Sulpicius Quirinius in Syria and Palestine is scanty in the extreme. Even with St. Matthew’s placing the birth of Jesus during the reign of King Herod, generally believed to have died in 4 B.C.—but some people place it as late as 1 B.C.—the earliest attempts to put a precise date on “those days” proved erroneous, and we now date the birth of Jesus anywhere from 2 to 7 B.C.
What Luke is certainly doing here, as well as in his introduction to Jesus’ public ministry—where he catalogs the Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, and 2 other rulers, plus the priests Annas and Caiaphas—is to place Jesus solidly within our human story. The Son of God is truly incarnate, entering our world with all its joys and its woes. He has become one of us in order to bring us to God.
The exact date, tho, isn’t particularly important, is it? The context of “those days” is important: a context of general peace, security, and stability in the Mediterranean world, in the heart of the Roman Empire—the famous Pax Romana. Of course, when Luke speaks of “the whole world’s being enrolled” (2:1)—our translation of pasan ten oikoumenen—he means the civilized world as he knows it, altho we know Rome’s empire, albeit the greatest empire known to man until that time, was but an itty-bitty part of the actual world, even the civilized world, at that time—considering the great cultures already long flourishing in India and China, and perhaps in parts of sub-Saharan Africa or Meso-America.
God chose “those days” and that part of the world as the right time—in Gal 4:4 St. Paul calls it “the fullness of time”—to send forth the Savior of “the whole world.” This time we do mean “the whole world,” not only Luke’s world: “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (2:14), “favor” or “grace” that Luke will show thru the rest of his gospel and the Acts being offered to the whole of humanity, including society’s outsiders like the shepherds (and tax collectors, public sinners, Samaritans, and Gentiles).
And the world of Caesar Augustus, the Roman Empire essentially at peace, with the seas cleared of pirates and safe for shipping, with well-maintained roads ultimately connecting Jerusalem with Spain, Gaul, and even Britain, with troops to keep public order, with a semi-universal language—the koiné or common Greek used thruout the eastern Mediterranean and as far west as Rome, facilitating communication—“the fullness of time” was the right time for spreading this “good news of great joy for all the people” (2:10), the news of this Savior who brings God’s favor to mankind. It’s not coincidence but Providence that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem “in those days,” and “the time came for her to have her child” (2:6).
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son” (2:7). Polemicists use that verse to argue that Jesus had brothers and sisters, that Mary didn’t preserve her virginity but entered a normal married life with Joseph. Luke isn’t part of that discussion, however; it’s irrelevant to his presenting Jesus as the “firstborn”—because that’s a legal term.
In the Exodus story, after the 1st Passover and after the angel of death passed thru Egypt slaying the firstborn of man and beast, except in those homes marked by the blood of the Passover lamb, we read, “The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘Consecrate to me every first-born that opens the womb among the Israelites, both of man and beast, for it belongs to me” (13:1-2), and every firstborn son must be redeemed with a sacrifice (1:13). So Luke is saying, 1st of all, that Jesus, as the firstborn, belongs to the Lord, is consecrated to the Lord. The 1st words of his public ministry in Luke’s gospel will reflect this consecration. He reads from Isaiah and attributes the passage to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me [consecrated me] to bring glad tidings to the poor” (4:18). Notice also the link-back to the angels’ announcement to the shepherds.
Jesus will be redeemed, as the Law required, when Joseph and Mary take him up to the Temple 40 days after his birth. The twist in the story, tho, is that this firstborn doesn’t need to be redeemed; he will become the sacrifice that redeems “all the people,” “the whole world.”
The 2d thing to be said about Jesus’ being the firstborn—we don’t know whether Luke had it in mind or not, but certainly St. Paul was aware of it. And since Luke was a missionary companion of Paul, we may suppose that he, too, would accept the point. Paul writes to the Romans, “Those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers [and sisters]” (8:29). So, yes, Jesus does have brothers and sisters—not from Mary’s womb directly, but from the womb of Baptism, from our destiny to be raised to eternal life as children of God.
Yet we are Mary’s children. For we belong to Christ; we are part of his body. Mary is his mother and our mother—which we could say even without reference to Jesus’ words to her and to the beloved disciple in John’s gospel. In Christian mystery, the entire Church is born from Mary’s womb, and Jesus is her firstborn in a quasi-chronological sense; certainly in a theological sense, and not just in the legal sense.
In this Eucharist, making present Christ’s sacrifice for the redemption of the world, we pray that “the whole world should be enrolled” among his many brothers and sisters, enrolled for eternal life.