In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. — Luke 2:1–3
The beginning of Saint Luke’s account of the Nativity often gets homiletic short shrift, preachers passing it by as if it were merely Lucan throat-clearing. Yet those three brief sentences (especially when read in the context of the evangelist’s promise to make his gospel “an orderly account” [Luke 1:3]) take readers of the Christmas story to the very heart of the Christian claim — a claim that is increasingly countercultural in our increasingly Gnostic age of competing “spiritualities.”
Those “spiritualities” usually involve the human search for God, which easily drifts off into the mythological, the fantastic, or the purely subjective. Biblical religion, which from a Christian point of view reaches a particularly poignant moment at the Nativity, is something entirely different. Biblical religion is about God’s search for us, and our learning to take the same path through history that God is taking.
Thus Saint Luke’s account of the Nativity is constructed to avoid any hint of the mythological. In Luke’s “orderly account,” the birth of the Son of God is emphatically not a nice story, a charming “narrative,” a myth. The birth of the Son of God takes place at a specific, definable moment in world history (in the reign of Augustus, “when Quirinius was governor of Syria”) and at a specific, determinate place: the “City of David” (as the angelic GPS will instruct the shepherds), which is also the city of Joseph, spouse of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Those three brief, sober sentences are not only Luke’s decisive rejection of a mythological savior; in terse form, they also anticipate Saint Paul’s Christological confession that Christ, the eternal Son of the Father, is the center of history and, as such, is intimately involved in every time and every place: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). We might even imagine Paul and his quondam traveling companion, Luke, pondering the relationship between the child of Bethlehem and the cosmic Christ as they walked from Philippi to Thessalonica and Athens, where Paul tried to shake the Athenians from their tired cynicism about mythologized gods at the Areopagus.
And in that region there were shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. . . . And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy . . . for to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths 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, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.” – Luke 2:8–14.
The second striking thing about Luke’s Nativity story is that the first announcement of the savior’s birth takes place on what Pope Francis would call “the peripheries.” In our crèche scenes, as in Handel’s glorious rendering of this Lucan text in Messiah, the shepherds have been given a serious makeover: They’re happy, bucolic, gentle souls who come to the manger with cute lambs draped over their shoulders. That’s not Luke’s idea, though, and the makeover often obscures the radical message embedded in Luke’s Gospel of the Nativity.