Of all the gospel writers, Luke tells us most about Jesus’ birth. But even he is remarkably sparing with the details. He tells of the visit of the shepherds, but draws a veil over most of the details we would love to know. And therefore we fill them in from our imaginations – not a bad thing to do, as long as we are clear what is fact and what is fiction.
Luke is careful to set the birth of Jesus in a historical context. That’s all well and good, except that we don’t know about this census from historical records, nor about Quirinius as governor of Syria – the only Quirinius we know was governor of Syria in AD6 long after Christ was born. (He did indeed carry out a census then, though certain inscriptions show that he was also in the area between 10BC and 7BC.) However, in other cases Luke’s historicity has been dismissed only to be reinstated by subsequent archaeological finds, and it is possible that future discoveries may shed light on the subject.
The requirement for each to go to their ancestral home was not the usual Roman way of carrying out a census – they preferred people to be counted where they lived. However, it was not unheard of, and if Herod had been in charge he might have wanted to put a Jewish flavour into it, for the tie between the Jews and their ancestral land was very strong.
Luke does not say anything about Joseph and Mary’s journey, nor about what they did when they arrived in Bethlehem. No donkey is mentioned, neither is the innkeeper; the fact that there was no room in the inn is only given to explain why the new-born baby was laid in a manger, and that is only told us to make sense of the sign the angel gave the shepherds. The ‘inn’ could be a lodging house for travellers, or the guest-room of a house. The manger could have been also within the house (animals often shared a home in poor families) or in a cave (the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built over a cave), or even in the open air. Swaddling clothes were strips of cloth wrapped round the baby; Mary’s wrapping the baby herself implies a lonely birth, though one would imagine some kind of midwife would be involved. All the details imply poverty and rejection.
The shepherds – who were they? Shepherds were not well regarded in those days, so the fact that they were the first outside the immediate family to know about Christ’s birth reveals God’s grace and the equality of all in his eyes. Some people argue that if the shepherds were in the fields it could hardly have been December – the sheep would have been inside by that time. Others say that so near to Jerusalem and the temple some special flocks of animals for sacrifice were kept in the field all year round. The Shepherds Fields near Bethlehem are in a valley below the town which is set on a limestone ridge, so the shepherds would have had to go up to Bethlehem to find the baby. How long they had to search we do not know; it may be that there was an obvious place for them to look for a suitable manger. And in a close knit community the birth of a baby in such circumstances would be widely known very shortly.
The whole point of the story is the message of the angels, which revealed exactly what had just happened. The appearance of the first angel struck terror into the shepherds. But his message was one of great joy – the best possible news. The message was of joy for all people, not just a few. The town of David, Bethlehem, was the place where the Messiah would be born, according to prophecy, and the message was that the Messiah had indeed just been born. The Messiah (‘Christ’) was the longed-for Saviour and Lord, the coming Prince of Peace who would bring in the new age of perfect peace and harmony. If true, the message was indeed one of great joy! And this baby was born ‘to you’ – God wanted them to receive this good news, and to receive his Messiah as his gift to them! And to crown it all, the angel suddenly was joined by multitudes of other angels, all praising God and singing. ‘Glory to God!’ They were probably always singing that! ‘On earth peace to those on whom his favour rests!’ God was indeed showing his favour to humankind, and the end result would indeed be peace. But not yet, and not without our doing the best we can for love of God to bring it to pass.
1) How can we share the angels’ joy?
2) What do the circumstances of the Messiah’s birth teach us?