“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
And 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, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And 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 in the inn”.
(Luke 2:1-7 ESV)
I’ve never had a child. But, I did once wait four years for a Blue Peter badge to arrive. I imagine the experiences are somewhat similar, bar the rather overt biological differences. I remember the nervous pacing, the anxious muttering, and the occasional sitting on our numbingly uncomfortable telephone seat. The momentary joy when the postman appeared, the hungry devouring of letters, the inevitable disappointment at the lack of envelopes inscribed “Master Kelso”. And then, one fine afternoon, ten-year old me found a letter on my bed. At last, my Blue Peter badge had arrived.
The Advent has been announced by Gabriel. It has been anticipated by Mary, Elizabeth and womb-bound John the Baptist. And now, “the fullness of time [has] come”, as “God [sends] forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). Jesus, the Saviour, has arrived.
But, where? Into which place, which moment, was Jesus made man?
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus” (2:1). Christ arrived into a specific moment of history. The incarnation is not a fable, nor is it merely a literary technique, but it is a literal moment, rooted in human history. Christ was born amidst the power-parades of the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus flaunts his supremacy, demanding that “all the world” (2:1) be subject to his decree. He seeks a census. Presumably, Augustus seeks to bask in his self-appointed glory, revelling in the conquest statistics of his empire.
The moment appears to be filled by a self-appointed god-king. And yet, implicit all over this narrative is the sovereign Lordship of the One who rules the Cosmos. Augustus joins with all other emperors as merely God’s instruments in God’s redemptive plan. For, God uses Augustus’s pride-fuelled census to fulfil His promise: “but you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2).
So, Luke’s Gospel focuses in on Joseph and Mary. They hail from the obscurity of Nazareth. But Joseph is of “the house and lineage of David” (2:4). To register in this census, Joseph must return to his home-town in Bethlehem. Before the infant Jesus – God incarnate – draws breath, we witness the fulfilment of a prophecy, many centuries old.
Jesus’ arrival brings fulfilment.
And, therefore, while they were in Bethlehem, “the time came for [Mary] to give birth” (2:6). Surely, we must be staggered at the place the Son of God arrives? He isn’t born in Caesar’s palace, nor is He born in a place of comfort or ease. He’s born among animals in poverty and laid in a (probably) crudely-wrought, dirty, stinking “manger” from which the animals would have eaten. The only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds: God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, the One through whom all things are made. And yet, He’s brought into the world in the most dismal of conditions.
Now, as Piper postulates in Good News of Great Joy, “if God so rules the world as to use an empire-wide census to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem”, surely He could have ensured that a room was available in the inn. Of course He could! Yet, this shows the depths to which Christ wilfully humbled Himself. Christ’s humility doesn’t begin at the Cross, nor at the outset of His ministry, nor when He is twelve years-old in the Temple. Christ displays His wilful humility, from the very first breath He inhales. And, this shows the depths of God’s grace toward us: He willed that, for our sake, Christ would become poor (2 Corinthians 8:9). Forget crackers, mince-pies, non-alcoholic mulled wine, Home Alone, snow, trees, baubles, cards. Forget all our man-made trappings of Christmas. For there is no thought quite as lifting, quite so humbling, quite so full of joy, quite as rich and deep and powerful as this. That Christ’s arrival is joy-beyond-joy. That Christ’s arrival in this place is grace-beyond-measure.
In his magnificent chapter “God Incarnate”, in Knowing God, J.I Packer considers various “stumbling-blocks” many postulate toward Christianity: the reality of atonement, the possibility of resurrection, the scientific rational against miracles and so on. However, he argues “the supreme mystery of the gospel” (Packer, 53) does not lie with any of these issues. Rather, it is “in the Christmas message of incarnation” that we see the single most staggering claim of Christianity: “that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man –
the second person of the Godhead became ‘the second man’, determining human destiny…He took humanity without loss of deity…the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby…there was no illusion in this: Jesus of Nazareth was as truly and fully divine as He was human” (Packer, 53).
The baby in the manger is the Son of God. Let’s continue to reflect on the arrival of God, the Prince of Peace, the Light of the World, the Lord of Angel-Armies, made manifest in the flesh, throughout Advent. I’m certain our Christmases will be all the brighter for it.