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. 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.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Christmas is finally just a few hours away from us. The light of our trees and decorations shine out into the night. Our Advent wreath is fully lit, and we wait for the few scant moments that separate us from fully celebrating our commemoration of Christ’s entry into our human history. No longer separate from Humanity, but completely invested in a physical body and married eternally to our lives. The Incarnation, the irreversible unity of Heaven and Earth, is just a few hours away.
There are many things that make Jesus’s entry into creation miraculous. That God could take on Human Flesh and yet remain God. That this union could redeem our fallen state and set us right with God. That the Messiah of Judah would save not only his people but the entire world. All these are miraculous in themselves, but beyond these massive, cosmological aspects of incarnation comes some mundane miracles we cannot overlook. A baby is born, in a difficult time, to struggling parents, in a dying province of a decaying empire, and yet is still able to live and grow, to reach adulthood and follow the difficult road before them all the way to the end.
While we do not know the exact date of Jesus’s birth or the exact year, we do know enough about it to understand what kind of world Jesus was born into. Jesus’s birth falls somewhere in a fourteen-year span, somewhere between 7 BC and 7 AD. During the reign of Herod the Great, but also close enough to the reign of Quirinius as governor of Syria to allow for a census to be held at the time of Jesus’s birth. While this gives us an indeterminate span of time to say when exactly Christ entered the world, it is more than enough to sketch out what sort of world Jesus was being born into.
Jesus was born to poor parents in a poor province of the Roman Empire. While Judah had briefly known independence preceding Roman occupation, Rome was really just a continuation of the long line of Empires that had controlled the region. Assyria first held Judah as a vassal, then Babylon as a conquered territory, then Persia, then Media, then Greece. Judah had not known true independence since just after the time of King David. The food they grew sustained the local population somewhat, but much of it went to feed the Roman army. Herod and his children attempted to “civilize,” the region by building massive projects around the region. Herod the Great famously robbed David and Solomon’s royal tombs so that he could demolish and rebuild Nehemiah’s temple into a more stately building, while his sons would build fishing towns to feed the soldiers that occupied their land.
The poverty of Jesus’s family would have been exacerbated by these conditions. While an artisan and his wife were not likely to have a great deal of money, unless he did extremely specialized work, the introduction of Roman taxes around the time of Jesus’s birth ensured they would not have much money for themselves. The census executed by Quirinius to establish these taxes were opposed so openly that it culminated in one of the first of many attempted revolutions against Rome in Judah, a rebellion that was quickly put down. From this and other conflicts the Zealots were born, a guerilla group of Jewish rebels who mainly targeted Rome and their collaborators.
Jesus was born in a tumultuous time. Jesus was born to parents who could barely feed themselves, let alone a child. Jesus was born as a peasant in a no-name province in one of the largest and most powerful empires in the history of the region. “The wrong time to the wrong people in the wrong place.” That must be how the first people to hear what the gospels say about Jesus’s birth must have thought. As the titular song Jesus Christ Superstar, puts it, “Why did you [Jesus] pick such a backwards time and such a strange land?” It seems there would have been easier ways to enter the world than penniless and in danger at every turn.
Yet, Christ was not content to enter the world through easy means. A life that was to go the way that Christ’s life did was not possible to live in comfort or luxury. Christ was born into the worst parts of a suffering world, to live out a life of suffering and sorrow, and then to die a terrible death at the hands of the empire that had already caused so much suffering. Christ was not born to royalty, though he was a king, nor was he born in a temple despite being God. Christ was born into poverty, born in danger, born on the edge of oblivion, because ultimately the incarnation was God entering into humanity, the fullest expression of humanity.
Humanity, as defined by Job, are those people, “Few of days and full of troubles.” (Job 14:1) If nothing else can be learned from the year we have just seen rush by us at a slug’s pace, it is that Job was right. Life is a precious thing that we can easily see taken away. By disease, by time, by injustice and cruelty. Life is also a hard thing to stomach – because of pain, of fear, of a sense that the problems we face are simply too numerous to truly escape. Life is not easy, and anyone who tells us otherwise is selling something.
So, into the fullness of humanity, into a life that was hard from the outset, Jesus arrives. Not in a palace as a king, not in a temple as a God, but in the feed trough of a stable – perhaps walled in, perhaps in a cave, but certainly not the place for a child. Christ enters into hardship so that at all times and in all places, whatever a person may face, they can be sure that Christ has faced it as well. The biting cold of the winter winds, the heat of the noonday sun, the stinging pain of hunger, the burning of a fever – all these are things Christ experienced to share empathy and love with us. True solidarity between God and humanity, achieved through the difficult work of a child being born, and a life lived with little relief from the many problems that life presents us with.
In a difficult year, we celebrate Christmas far away from one another. Scattered once more during an important season of the Church, each of us in our own homes and all of us left wishing the world could be more like what we would want. Free of this pandemic, away from the constant precautions and worries that we face, back to a time when we can hug one another and shake hands and simply be present with one another without anything between us. We find Christmas coming to us, seemingly, in the wrong year – a year where we cannot greet it as we usually would, a year where sanctuaries sit darkened and we are all wrapped up warmly at home instead.
Yet, in the same way that the incarnation came at a seemingly inopportune time, to people who seemed ill prepared to be parents to a deity, maybe Christmas comes at just the right time to a people who are dearly in need of it. The promise of Christ coming long ago is that Christ will come again. The diseases that threaten us will eventually be done away with, all pain erased, and only goodness and glory shall remain. Today, as we gather across the void of a cold night and the warm buzz of electronics, we still somehow stand together at the manger. Like the Shepherds we see something we cannot fully understand, but that still fills our hearts with hope.
A child, shivering against a cold night, wrapped in a blanket by their teenage mother. A confused step-father, unsure how such a child could exist. A boy heralded by angels as a King and as God, but nothing more to the eyes than a child, just like any other. We are beside those inquisitive shepherds tonight, citizens of a broken and hurting world, but looking on a savior unlike any other. A savior willing to come down and get their hands dirty in human form, to live a life harder than most, simply to give us all a chance to know peace, and patience, and joy. We have waited a long time for Christmas, for Christ, for hope to spark within us once again. Wait no more, Christ is born in Bethlehem, and our salvation is made real. – Amen.