Attempting to look at the nativity story with fresh eyes is always a difficult task. It’s so familiar, so ingrained in our psyche through school plays, Christmas cards, and the knowing nods and winks in the adverts. Year after year, as soon as the word ‘nativity’ is uttered, the same old sights and stories roll through our minds.
The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, adorned with a tea towel, and tells her she is going to have a baby. Mary and her fiancé Joseph (also wearing a tea-towel) wander down to Bethlehem only to discover there’s no room in the local Premier Inn. After cutting about Bethlehem, they find themselves in a stable and out pops the baby Jesus. Tinsel-topped angels then appear to shepherds who are wearing (you guessed it) tea towels and the three kings rock up with some questionable gift choices – you know the drill.
But with our nostalgic, 21st Century vision we impose ideas and images onto the story that just do not feature in the stories we find in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. In our modern reimagining of the story, we miss the subtle historical and cultural details woven into the narrative.
For example, the three kings in the nativity story have traditionally been called Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. However, not only are these three kings unnamed in the Gospel of Matthew, they aren’t actually called kings – they’re called Magi, or wise men. Not only are these wise men unnamed and not kings, we also don’t know whether there were three of them. This unnumbered group of wise men brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to think of six wise men who brought only three types of gifts.
In a similar vein, over the course of this short series we will look at some of the aspects of the nativity story that our retellings miss and the theological significance these ‘hidden’ motifs reveal.
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)
Luke opens his story by name dropping the Emperor of Rome, the most powerful person in the Roman world. Augustus’ power extended far beyond his reign as emperor. Both his name, Caesar, and his title, Augustus, became the titles of rulers of the Roman Empire and beyond (e.g. Kaiser/Tsar or Charlemagne’s styling as serenissimus augustus). The imperial cult of Augustus, Divus Augustus, remained the official state religion of the Roman Empire until 391AD, nearly four hundred years after Augustus’ death. Luke’s nativity scene starts with the actions of this powerful ruler.
Right from the beginning, Luke throws a curveball. We very quickly begin to see this story is not about Augustus at all. Rather than Caesar and the census of the Roman world being the focal point of the narrative, they’re a mere footnote. Instead of dedicating expensive ink and papyrus to the deified Emperor, Luke’s gaze is elsewhere. Augustus’ and his census fade into the background, allowing some very ordinary people to come to fore.
Joseph, as we learn later on in the Gospels, is a carpenter. The contrast between the occupations of Caesar and Joseph is stark. Caesar Augustus, the head of the Roman Empire, political power, military might, and wealth beyond compare lay at his fingertips. All that lay at Joseph’s fingertips were splinters and cuts from a life of rugged craftsmanship and carpentry – a profession the orator Cicero called ‘vulgar’ and compared with slavery.
And yet, this is the focal point of Luke’s story. Despite containing a deified figure who would be the centre of the official religion of Roman for four centuries, Luke’s narrative focuses on a different deified figure. The sheer number of words dedicated to Jesus in Luke’s Gospel show where his priorities lie and who he is pointing the reader towards. ‘If you want to know a deified king, do not look at Caesar, but Jesus. Do not look at the one with supreme temporal power but at this baby in an animal’s feeding trough.’
We are familiar enough with the nativity accounts that this isn’t all that surprising. Nevertheless, imagine being a political historian in the UK today and choosing not to write about a Prime Minister or another world leader but about a person from Darwen who never held a single political office (if you’re not sure where Darwen is, that is exactly my point; apologies to any Darreners reading). And yet, that is what Luke chooses to do.
Cutting through the sentimental repetitions of the nativity story we see a politically and theologically loaded narrative. The deified ‘King’ of the Roman Empire is far less significant than the deified infant King above all kings. Though that is an easy enough assessment to make with two thousand years’ hindsight, Luke’s nativity is prophetic and profound – his estimation of the significance of Jesus was spot on and, a message for the 21st century reader, God turns up in the most unlikely of places.
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