I was thinking about the practicalities of being pregnant and having a baby, as I remember giving birth to two sons within the care of our local hospital, with doctors and nurses present, with pre and post-natal care available; prompt access to pain relief, appropriate infection control management, knowing if things were going to go wrong I was in the right place, and the presence of my husband, and then grandparents and friends celebrating while I tried to sleep. How different is this story!
Mary and Joseph were a couple who were navigating the complexities of their relationship. Mary was pregnant. Joseph was a kind and generous man, faithful to God whose life had been turned upside down by his decision to trust the Holy Spirit and God’s intentions for him and his future wife; who was accepting a child not his own as his firstborn son, naming him as God asked and adopting him into his own lineage of David.
Then at this point, the presence of the Roman Empire intruded into their lives requiring them to travel to their own towns to be registered. This was not about registering to vote, it was certainly not democracy at work. This was about taxation and control by the Roman Empire. It was power made present and immediate. Practically, it was a distance of about 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to where the couple had to travel.
The reading from Isaiah points to the shape and expectation of God’s new covenanted rule about to be made real and human:
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace …. there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom….” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
And Luke doesn’t spend a lot of time on the details, he outlines the essential facts of the story:
And 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” (Luke 2:6-7).
The long days of travel on the back of a donkey must have been hard for both Mary and Joseph, over rough terrain, sleeping at wayside inns. Finally, to arrive and end up sharing space with animals and putting your newborn into a manger to stop the animals treading on him. Mary would have been exhausted with the journey and labour, needing Joseph’s support and involvement, as no relatives or help are suggested in the story told by Luke. A simple statement of the events; and the couple has become a family and the work of God and the Holy Spirit is working out just as it was told to them.
While Matthew’s Gospel focusses on the story of Joseph, Luke focusses on Mary, who is introduced as a faithful woman, listening to God’s Spirit. Marginalised and despised, as Mary would have been for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the scandal this would have generated, together with her cousin Elizabeth whose years of apparent barrenness, are placed at the centre of Luke’s story.
We are also reminded with the arrival of the shepherds who come at the invitation of the angels, that King David was originally a shepherd, raised up by God to become a great king. It is the despised and poor shepherds who are the first to pay homage to the newborn king.
The story’s opening with the Emperor Augustus calling for the empire to be registered, offers a completely different sense of power to that provided by a newborn baby, living in the margins of a poor country region of Galilee, in an out-of-the way inn in Bethlehem. Yet Luke presents this child as a rival to Augustus, the most powerful man in the Empire.
The Roman Empire promised peace through this power, through violence at any cost. The Emperor had ‘power over’ while Jesus, at whose birth the angels sang, sharing the good news with the poor and outcast, who spoke of healing and teaching, peace made real, as God’s love was incarnated, non-violently, with compassion. Jesus is God’s creating word.
The baby who becomes the man on the cross is God ‘with the people’, rather than God ‘over the people’. It is our God who lifts up the oppressed, and fills those who are hungry in body, mind and soul with God’s blessings. In Jesus, God turns the tables on the powers of the world.
God’s power comes into the world born of poor people, oppressed by mighty Rome, who are willing to trust in God rather than the world, faithful and loving as they accept the Holy Spirit working in their lives as God’s calling to them.
The invitation for us is to see and hear this wonderfully familiar story again, to see ourselves in Mary, Joseph and in Jesus, as the baby born and wrapped in bands of cloth and placed in the manger.
To recognise Jesus’ weakness and vulnerability and those of Mary and Joseph, as being the same as us, and to know we too can rely on God, no matter how poor in body, mind or spirit we may be. He is the peace of God’s power made manifest as ‘power with’ through love and compassion, rather than ‘power over’ through violence.
Luke’s quiet, extraordinary story of Jesus’ birth and the trust and faith of Mary and Joseph, remind us gently that faithful actions enabled by the Holy Spirit are able to birth God’s new creation today. You and I are present as witnesses to this and we are visiting the inn to share in the good news and to sing with the angels with joy for the world.
The Lord be with you.