Mary – Session 3

INTRO We have looked so far at the social and political setting of Mary’s life and community in the early 1st Century Palestine and the significance of her poverty. Then we explored God’s invitation of this young woman, this virgin to become the Mother of the Messiah and the beautiful meeting between the two women who carry all human hope and all God’s response in their wombs – Mary and Elizabeth. Today we will explore Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. But first I would like us to reflect on the Icon of the Nativity and how it expresses the mystery of the Incarnation, proclaiming One who was born to die and Rise again….

[1] ‘Now at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census’ (Luke 2: 1). Our tendency when proclaiming this Gospel passage is to pass over this historical detail. Why does the author include it? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, he needs a device in the narrative of the story to move from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south. Why? because the constant oral tradition (the stories of Christ passed on by word of mouth for decades before they were written down) of the infancy of Christ has Him born in Bethlehem, the City of David. For the Messiah was to be born in this ‘place of the least’ as the prophet Micah 5: 4 said and which is quoted in Matthew 2: 6 in the account of the journey of the Wise Men. This associates Jesus very closely with King David and the line of the Kings – the Messiah when he came would be a liberating King of Davidic line. It was in Bethlehem that the shepherd boy, son of Jesse, was born – he would who would become the idealised King of Israel. And shepherds play an important role in Luke’s nativity account. Secondly, Luke pinpoints the emergence of the Messiah in a moment of history (even when he gets the details wrong – as he does here – there is no external historical evidence of such a census!). See also the emergence of John the Baptist in Luke 3: 1-2. The story of the Incarnation is the pivotal turning point in human history – ours is not a ‘philosophical’ religion of beliefs and moral codes – ours is a faith rooted in a moment of time, of our encounter with the living God who is so involved in the course of human history and evolving development – a God who we meet walking the roads of history, being alongside all humanity in our struggles, joys, hopes and sufferings. The transcendent God is among us, not far away in some heaven above the skies!  Thirdly, Luke is deliberately placing Jesus, the true ‘Lord and Prince of Peace’, the true ‘Saviour of the World’ as the counterpoint to worldly power. Augustus was arguably the great Roman Emperor, the one who quelled serious divisions and civl wars that engulfed the Roman Empire and threatened its existence. He brought the ‘Pax Romana’ to the vast Empire (by bloody military victories and great oppression!) was hailed as ‘Saviour’ and ‘Prince of Peace’, and indeed was acclaimed and worshipped as a god. Everywhere around the Empire there were Temples and Statues of Augustus Caesar. It is one of the reasons why the Christians were considered so subversive and were so persecuted by the Roman Empire – because they undermined (among other things!) Emperor worship that kept the Roman Forces in power. As the Church spread among the Gentile peoples of the Empire, soldiers who became Christians would no longer worship Caesar by burning incense before the statue and very often would refuse to fight and kill, because of the new-found faith. Power could not tolerate subversive Truth and so its persecution was vicious. Luke, Paul and the Johannine literature all use titles given to the Emperor of Rome and now attribute them to Jesus. The angels declare to the shepherds that this child in Bethlehem’s manger was the true ‘Saviour’, ‘the Lord’ (a phrase used scrupulously in the Hebrew Scriptures for God alone), the One who brings true ‘Peace’ – all titles of the Emperor who is now eclipsed by this child. At His trial, especially in John’s Gospel, the issue of the nature of Jesus ‘kingship’ is greatly stressed. Luke here is proclaiming a Christ who is God’s immersion into the world of the poor and whose power is so much greater than Rome’s, because here is the power of God’s loving! He is the One who brings true Peace, not the violent Pax Romana of the Caesar. Here is the true Saviour – look to Christ, not to the Emperor – dangerous talk! (in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, ‘whoever says that the Bible has nothing to do with politics has never read it!’). Furthermore, Luke the Gentile writer, is clearly saying that this Jesus is not simply a Jewish Messiah but is of universal significance, belongs to the Gentile world as well – even primarily! Here Luke is fashioning his infancy narrative with a different purpose to Matthew (the most Jewish of the Gospels).

[2] The Shepherds These are the poorest workers of Israel and so often their work prohibited them from being part of synagogue or Temple. They also evoke David, the Shepherd King as they gather in the City of David. They evoke the prophecies in Jeremiah ch 23 and Ezechiel ch 34 which criticising the rulers, priests and prophets of Israel (the nations ‘shepherds’) while promising that God would come and stand among the flock and feed his sheep – God would come and be the True and caring Shepherd – the theme Jesus takes up so powerfully in John ch 10. The angels tell them to look for a sing – the baby in swaddling clothes lying in a manger (Luke 2: 12). Like the wise King Solomon, Jesus too is wrapped with cloth bands (Wisdom 7: 4-5) at his beginning – and then again in the Tomb! Why a manger – the eating trough of animals? Jesus comes not lodged in an inn like a stranger, but in a stable and manger: for God is the sustainer of His people, giving himself as food for the journey, nourishment for the flock of Israel and indeed of all the world. We see here a glimpse of both the ‘True Manna from heaven’, the ‘Bread of Angels’ – the One who gives Himself to us in the Eucharist (see Luke – ‘they recognised him in the breaking of bread’ Luke 24: 30-35).  The importance of the shepherds as the first witnesses to the birth of Great Shepherd is that they are the marginalised poor, the menial workers (especially the night shepherds!), the not very religious! The poor are filled with wonder at the God who comes among them first! The whole scene of the nativity in Luke is calculated to be the opposite of the Caesar (for Gentile readers) and the opposite of Jewish messianic expectation. The Word made Flesh confounds earthly power, earthly hopes and so brings a new era where the poor and powerless are first! The shepherds are lost in wonder and then go and tell their world of the poor the Good News – the work of Mission is already begun at the birth! Meanwhile, as they recount to Mary all the Angels (ie God) has told them, she ponders and treasures and wonders what all this means!  Mary shows us that Faith is trust, not certainty! In the midst of glory and excitement, with angels and shepherds – there is Mary, still, quiet and reflective – loving and giving!

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