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.
Shepherds, in the time and place of this “orderly account,” were outliers. Pious Jews considered their work unclean and thus considered them unclean; shepherds were marginalized, often shunned, and certainly not pleasant to be around, especially for those with strong olfactory nerves. Yet it is to these outliers, on this rural periphery, that the good news is first proclaimed: the history-changing news that, as Paul writes to Titus in a text used in Christmas worship, “the grace of God has appeared” (Titus 2:11). And with that appearance comes the gift of peace, which extends to the peripheries and the outliers who live there. That gift is messianic: It changes everything, and it changes everyone; it calls forth new forms of solidarity, which include the outliers; it proclaims a new hope, that a world out of kilter might be returned to its proper, divinely created orbit.
How? By a child. And here, too, Luke gently leads us from the alluring surface of the Christmas story to its evangelical depths. For as Pope Benedict XVI preached at Midnight Mass on December 24–25, 2006, “God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that He makes Himself small for us. This is how He reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor. He comes as a baby — defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with His strength. He takes away our fear of His greatness. . . . God made Himself small so that we could understand Him, welcome Him, and love Him.”
And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. – Luke 2:16–19
It is no offense to theologically serious Marian piety to suggest that the mother of Jesus was one of those who “wondered at what the shepherds told them.” Her entire childbearing had been a wonderment, beginning with the Annunciation. And now this son, conceived by “the Holy Spirit . . . and the power of the Most High,” this son who “will be great” and who will “reign over the house of Jacob forever,” this “child [who] . . . will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:32–35) has as his first witnesses a scruffy gaggle of malodorous peasants who have seen a vision of angels. But Mary at Bethlehem, like Mary at the Annunciation in Nazareth, does not quarrel with the seeming oddities of the design of salvation history. She ponders these things “in her heart,” in that spiritual center where the sons and daughters of Adam are in intimate contact with the “Most High.” And she continues to say at Christmas, as she had said nine months before, on March 25, the solemnity of the Annunciation, “Fiat”: “Be it done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
In this, readers of Luke’s Christmas story may find the very pattern of Christian discipleship: the conforming of our often fractious wills to the will of God. Mary is the first of disciples in the order of the spirit, and her fiat is the icon of all discipleship. And because all Christians are incorporated into Christ by baptism, Mary is also the mother of the Church, which is, according to Pope Pius XII, the “Mystical Body of Christ” extended in history. In Mary’s pondering of that which she kept in her heart, we learn, with her, the lesson it takes a lifetime to comprehend fully and accept: We are not in charge of our lives; God is in charge of our lives.
To know that is liberation in its fullest sense. To know that is to live beyond restlessness, and to enter into that peace promised by the angelic host.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His most recent books are Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church and Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, co-authored with Elizabeth Lev and Stephen Weigel.