The true meaning of Luke’s Christmas, part 5

During the reign of the god and saviour Caesar Augustus Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to be registered. While they were there, Mary gave birth to a son. She wrapped him in old cloths and put him in a feeding trough where the animals were kept because the house was overcrowded.

Even more remote from the centres of imperial power—by a few barren hillsides—a group of shepherds were visited by an angel, who told them about the birth of Israel’s royal saviour, appropriately in the city of David. This was a good news diametrically opposed to the “gospel” of salvation, prosperity and peace supposedly vouchsafed by the divine Augustus. They would find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a feeding trough.

Why were the swaddling cloths so important? Was it unusual to wrap babies up in this way? Presumably not (see Wis. 7:4). I wonder, therefore, if perhaps the word of the Lord that comes to Ezekiel regarding the abominations of Jerusalem is loosely relevant:

And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. (Ezek. 16:4-5)

The suggestion would be that the attention given to Jesus—in the wild place where the animals are kept, amongst the shepherds in their open fields—marks the reversal of God’s rejection of his rebellious people. It’s an attractive thought, anyway.

However, before the shepherds have a chance to look up the cross reference, a multitude of the heavenly host appears, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people of favour” (Lk. 2:14). Who are these “people of favour” (anthrōpois eudokias)? Certainly not “people of good will” as is sometimes thought—the reference is to God’s favour. But does the angel mean that God is “well pleased” with all humanity? Or does he have a select group in mind—those in particular who have found favour with him? To whom is the assurance of peace made?

We saw that Psalm 106 (105 in the Septuagint) appears to have had significant influence on the composition of Zechariah’s Benedictus. The psalmist prays: “Remember us, O Lord, in the good pleasure of your people; regard us in your deliverance…” (105:4 LXX). The word for “good pleasure” is the word that the angel uses: eudokia. It frequently denotes the good will of God towards those who fear him. Psalm 68:14 speaks of divine deliverance in a “time of favour”. For the corresponding verb Psalm 149 has a similar thematic significance:

Let Israel be glad in the one who made it, and let the sons of Sion rejoice in their king. Let them praise his name with a dance; with drum and harp let them make music to him, because the Lord takes pleasure (eudokei) in his people, and he exalts the meek with deliverance. (Ps. 149:2-4 LXX)

Nolland further makes reference to a number of Qumran texts—-for example: “…you have chosen a people in the period of your favour, because you have remembered the covenant” (1Q34 3.ii.5). He concludes that the statement “reflects a semitechnical Semitic expression referring to God’s people and having overtones of election and of God’s active initiative in extending his favor”.1

So we are still in the rather narrow passageway of the story about first century Israel. The peace that the heavenly host proclaim is the peace from violent oppression for which Zechariah longed. The shepherds give no thought to the salvation of the world as they make their way down to the village. This is still only Israel’s saviour.

It takes a difficult, self-denying empathy for the modern reader to confine her mind to this constrained historical perspective; but I will make the point again that the narrative becomes more, not less, powerful if we recognize its historical contingency.

  • 1. J. Nolland, Luke 1:9-20, Word Biblical Commentary, 109.
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