I hope that all my readers had a very happy Christmas Day! Here in Britain, we are looking forward to Boxing Day.

Today’s painting was completed in 1622 and featured in one of my Christmas posts in 2010.  It is called Adoration of the ShepherdsGerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst, a Dutch Golden Age painter, studied in Italy and took his influences from Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro, as you can see from the way the light plays on the Holy Family and the shepherds.

Yesterday’s post warned against reading too much about politics and asylum into the Christmas story. Chances are that if you heard a sermon in mainline or Catholic churches on this holy day, it concerned a call for political action.

Today’s post looks at Luke’s telling of the Christmas story, which includes the detail of Mary and Joseph’s travel for census and the birth of Jesus Christ.  The ESV text is below, followed by Dr Craig S Keener’s explanation of those events.

Luke 2:1-14

The Birth of Jesus Christ

1In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them inthe inn.

The Shepherds and the Angels

 8And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
 14 “Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

This past autumn I featured Dr Craig S Keener’s introduction to hermeneutics, which readers can find on my Christianity / Apologetics page. One of these concerned the understanding of biblical background. What follows is example No. 10 from that post. Emphases mine below:

… A tax census instigated by the revered emperor Augustus here begins the narrative’s contrast between Caesar’s earthly pomp and Christ’s heavenly glory. Although Egyptian census records show that people had to return to their homes for a tax census, the “home” to which they returned was where they owned property, not simply where they were born (censuses registered persons according to property). Joseph thus must have still held property in Bethlehem. Betrothal provided most of the legal rights of marriage, but intercourse was forbidden; Joseph was courageous to take his pregnant betrothed with him, even if (as is quite possible) she was also a Bethlehemite who had to return to that town. Although tax laws in most of the Empire only required the head of a household to appear, the province of Syria (then including Judea) also taxed women. But Joseph may have simply wished to avoid leaving her alone this late in her pregnancy, especially if the circumstances of her pregnancy had deprived her of other friends.

The “swaddling clothes” were long cloth strips used to keep babies’ limbs straight so they could grow properly. Midwives normally assisted at birth; especially since this was Mary’s first child, it is likely (though not clear from the text) that a midwife would have been found to assist her. Jewish law permitted midwives to travel a long distance even on the Sabbath to assist in delivery.

By the early second century even pagans were widely aware of the tradition that Jesus was born in a cave used as a livestock shelter behind someone’s home. The manger was a feeding trough for animals; sometimes these may have been built into the floor. The traditional “inn” could as easily be translated “home” or “guest room,” and probably means that, since many of Joseph’s scattered family members had returned to the home at once, it was easier for Mary to bear in the vacant cave outside.

Many religious people and especially the social elite in this period generally despised shepherds as a low-class occupation; but God sees differently than people do. Pasturing of flocks at night indicates that this was a warmer season, not winter (when they would graze more in the day); December 25 was later adopted as Christmas only to supercede a pagan Roman festival scheduled at that time.

Pagans spoke of the “good news” of the emperor’s birthday, celebrated throughout the empire; they hailed the emperor as “Savior” and “Lord.” They used choirs in imperial temples to worship the emperor. They praised the current emperor, Augustus, for having inaugurated a worldwide “peace.” But the lowly manger distinguishes the true king from the Roman emperor; Jesus is the true Savior, Lord, bringer of universal peace

Therefore, it would appear that Luke’s intention here is to make a distinction between the temporal and the divine. The Gospel writer wishes to draw us away from the political towards the heavenly, despite the humble circumstances surrounding our Lord and Redeemer’s birth.

Is that not a more significant lesson to bear in mind than something resembling a left-wing editorial?