Christmas reminds us of the value of humility by showing the humble beginning of Jesus’s life in this world. His birth was in an animal shelter in the peak of winter. Jesus told Nicodemus: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16). In Christmas, we see this immense love of God who sent down his Son as He had promised. Jesus continued this humility and self-sacrifice throughout his life and death. Jesus taught us the value of humble service for God and His people who deserve our love and service.
(Luke 2:1) At that time the Emperor Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. (2) This first census was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. (3) Everyone went to his own town to be registered. (4) Joseph too set out from Nazareth of Galilee. As he belonged to the family of David, being a descendant of his, he went to Judea to David’s town of Bethlehem (5) to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. (6) They were in Bethlehem when the time came for her to have her child, (7) and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
(8) There were shepherds camping in the countryside nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. (9) Suddenly an Angel of the Lord appeared to them, with the glory of the Lord shining around them. As they were terrified, (10) the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; I am here to give you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. (11) Today a Savior has been born to you in David’s town; he is Christ the Lord. (12) Let this be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (13) Suddenly the angel was surrounded by a great multitude of angels from heaven, praising God and saying, (14) ”Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to all in whom he delights.”
(15) When the angels had left them and gone back to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has made known to us.” (16) So they went hurriedly and found Mary and Joseph with the baby lying in the manger. (17) On seeing this they related what they had been told about the child, (18) and all were astonished on hearing the shepherds. (19) As for Mary, she treasured all these words and continually pondered over them. (20) The shepherds then returned giving glory and praise to God for all they had seen and heard, just as the angels had told them.
(1) At that time, the Emperor Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken.
The Emperor Caesar Augustus
Augustus Caesar was the first and greatest of the Roman emperors who ruled between 27 B.C. and 14 A.D. When 40 Roman senators, through a conspiracy, assassinated Julius Caesar in 43 B.C., he had selected his sister’s son Gaius Octavius as his successor. He later got the name Caesar Augustus. Caesar defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C. and afterward gained control over Rome and its extensive territories. He became emperor in 27 B.C. and the senate gave him the honorary title Augustus. Augustus means ‘majestic.’ During his region, he brought peace and prosperity to the empire.
During those days, there was no common religion. People considered the emperor as a god or son of god. Greek inscriptions reveal that the people accepted Augustus as “savior” and “god” in the empire. After becoming the emperor, Caesar Augustus maintained peace in the empire called “pax Augusta.” Jesus was born during his reign. However, the Evangelist Luke presents in the child Jesus, the true God and Savior who brought peace into the world.
A census of the whole world
Census taking happened at a peaceful time. The Roman empire was vast and composed of the most known countries. “The whole world” can also mean all people in the emperor’s domain. The emperor took a periodic census every 14 years for taxation purpose and to count those eligible for military service. However, the Jews had exemption from military service.
(2) This first census was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
The First census
Quirinius did a second census nine years after Jesus’ birth, when Judea was only a Roman province. The evangelist specifies that Jesus was born during the first enrollment when Quirinius was the governor of Syria and not during his second census.
A Historical Account
When Jesus was born, Judea was part of the Syrian province. Luke gives the names of the Roman emperor and Syrian governor to confirm that Jesus is a historic person.
Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because of the universal census taken under the order of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. That fulfilled the prophecy in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the City of David. The prophecy would have failed if the emperor did not introduce the census or if Joseph and Mary had delayed their journey to Bethlehem.
(3) Everyone went to his own town to be registered.
The Roman custom was to register in one’s own domicile because the pagans did not care about their ancestry. Whereas the Israelites kept their genealogy tracing back to the 12 sons of Jacob. Since they register the census according to their tribes and clans, they had to go to their own native land.
Joseph, the legal father of Jesus, was a descendant of David’s son Solomon. Mary was a descendant of King David’s son Nathan. So, we have two genealogical accounts of Jesus through the ancestral lines of Joseph by Matthew and of Mary by Luke. These show that Jesus is the “Son of David” from both the mother’s and the legal father’s line.
Since the ancestors of Joseph and Mary were from Bethlehem, the birthplace of David, they had to go there for the census. They traveled over 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which took many days.
(4) Joseph too set out from Nazareth of Galilee. As he belonged to the family of David, being a descendant of his, he went to Judea to David’s town of Bethlehem.
Went up from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
On the map, Bethlehem is below or south of Nazareth. The text could be “went down from Nazareth.” Bethlehem that is near Jerusalem is at a high altitude than Nazareth in Galilee. So, one who travels from the north to the south was climbing up. Joseph and Mary felt the climbing more difficult because Mary was weak.
Bethlehem means “the house of bread” because it was a fertile area for agriculture and animal rearing. Jesus who said, “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven” (John 6:51a), was born in that house of bread that produced food for the Jews.
An escape from Herod
Joseph and Mary’s temporary living in Bethlehem far south from Galilee was God’s providential arrangement. The Holy Family could later escape to Egypt to protect the Infant Jesus from the snares of Herod the Great who wanted to assassinate the Holy Child.
(5) … to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
Why the Evangelist Luke uses the term “betrothed” for Joseph and Mary even now? Joseph had married Mary by this time because he took her to his home, equivalent to the wedding (Matthew 1:24). However, they did not consummate their marriage because of the virgin birth. Hence, the evangelist continued to use the term “betrothed” to assure that the child is not of Joseph, and Mary is still a virgin.
(6) They were in Bethlehem when the time came for her to have her child.
Joseph and Mary reached Bethlehem after the tiresome journey of many days. Then it was time for Mary to give birth to her son. What a miserable situation for the Holy Family! Had the birth happened in Nazareth, they would have conveniences like their own house to give birth, help of a midwife, support of family, relatives, and friends.
(7) And she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
According to the Jewish Law, the firstborn son had special duties and privileges. He shall inherit a double share of his father’s property (Deut. 21:17). Parents should offer him to God and then redeem him (Numbers. 18:15-16). Even if the parents have only one son, they consider him as the firstborn. So, the parents of Jesus presenting him to God as firstborn does not mean that Mary had other sons.
Wisdom 7:4 narrates that King David’s son Solomon was wrapped in swaddling clothes when he was born. Mary wrapped Jesus, the “Son of David” in the same manner. She had to do this herself because there was none to help her other than Joseph.
The manger was a feeding holder for animals. That was the only available place to hold the Baby Jesus with straw forming a warm bed. The ox and ass facing the manger could warm the baby in the winter. Fathers of the church refer this to Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its master and the ass its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Most of the Israelites could not understand the Messiah born in a cattle-shed and resting in a manger.
No room in the inn
Because of Mary’s advanced pregnancy, Joseph and Mary traveled slow. So, they could not reach in time to get accommodation in an inn. The inn during that time was a primitive shelter with accommodation for travelers and their animals. According to Biblical scholars, Bethlehem being a minor city had only one inn.
Parallelism of birth and death of Jesus
The birth and burial of Jesus were in caves. He had no house to be born or to die. The public and Jewish authorities rejected Jesus at his birth and death. Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes at his birth. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped him in a burial cloth during his entombment. His mother Mary had hardships at his birth and death.
The time of birth
We observe the birth of Jesus on December 24th evening when the daytime hours begin to increase. This contrasts with the birthday observance of John the Baptist, which is six months prior to Christmas, June 24th, when the days decrease. This is corresponding to what John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” (John 3: 30).
The virgin birth
The ever-virgin motherhood of Mary is a miracle. Fathers of the Church taught that Jesus was born while his mother’s womb was closed. They compare it to sunrays penetrating through the glass. Since Blessed Virgin Mary was born free from original sin, she was exempt from the punishment God gave to Eve, “I will increase your suffering in child-bearing, and you will give birth to your children in pain.” (Genesis 3:16). So, the Fathers of the Church believed that Mary was free from pain when she gave birth to Jesus.
(8) There were shepherds camping in the countryside nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
Shepherds welcomed the Good Shepherd.
Bethlehem, being close to Jerusalem, was a sheep rearing area for sacrifices in the Temple. Besides the sacrifice of many lambs on the feast days, the priests sacrificed an unblemished lamb every morning and evening. Angels invited shepherds and their sacrificial lambs when the divine shepherd and the last lamb for sacrifice was born.
David was also a shepherd boy at the same location when Samuel anointed him as the future King of Israel. Jesus, the “Son of David” and the promised eternal king of the universe, was born in David’s native place.
The birth announcement of the Messiah did not happen to the High Priest or King Herod, but to the humble shepherds who were of low social and religious status. The orthodox people despised the shepherds because they could not keep the religious laws and rituals. In the Canticle of Mary, she sings: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52). The patriarchs of the Old Testament like Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses were also shepherds.
(9) Suddenly an Angel of the Lord appeared to them, with the glory of the Lord shining around them. As they were terrified…
“The angel of the Lord” differs from regular angels. His presence manifests a divine presence along with the glory of the Lord. Seeing the glory of the Lord in this world is terrifying because it is incomparable with anything on the earth. The vision of God’s glory or the Angel of the Lord frightened the visionaries at first. Some Fathers believe that this angel was Gabriel, who appeared earlier to Zechariah and Mary.
(10) The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; I am here to give you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
Do not be afraid
Fear is a normal response to an extraordinary vision.
A joy for all people
Starting with Israel, the salvation that Jesus brought was open for all. Unlike temporary happiness, it will restore everlasting joy of the lost Garden of Eden.
(11) Today a Savior has been born to you in David’s town; he is Christ the Lord.
Titles of Jesus
The angel announced the birth of Jesus and described him in three words: Savior, Messiah, and the Lord. As savior, Jesus liberated humanity from the original sin and reconciled them with God. Messiah in Greek and Christ in Hebrew means the anointed. The persons anointed with oil were priests, kings, and prophets. God anointed Jesus in all these roles. The angel used the word Lord, used for Yahweh, also for Jesus. So, Jesus is the God incarnate.
(12) “Let this be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
The world will not see another child born in a manger inside an animal shelter. So, this became a sign for the shepherds to identify the newborn “Son of God.”
(13) Suddenly the angel was surrounded by a great multitude of angels from heaven, praising God and saying…
After the Angel of the Lord spoke, there was the sudden appearance of a multitude of heavenly hosts. Since the heaven came down to the earth by Jesus’ birth, the heavenly hosts also descended praising the Lord.
According to the local practice of the time, when a boy was born, the local musicians would gather and greet the child with music. That was missing when Jesus was born in an unusual place. However, God compensated it by sending his heavenly hosts to sing. Shepherds were witnesses to this.
(14) “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to all in whom he delights.”
We start the Holy Mass singing this song, reminding the birth of Jesus along with the song of the angels. There are three elements in this song:
(1) Declaration of the glory of God. Psalm 19:1 state: “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
(2) Peace has come to the earth. In Jesus, the heaven has come down to the earth to establish peace by freeing humanity from the bondage of sin.
(3) Peace to those who have good will or to those whom God favors. These are two versions of the translation. Both have distinct shades of meaning. God delighted in those who did the will of God like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Mary, and Joseph. Similarly, peace comes to those who do the will of God. Even when we do so, the peace is not our merit but God’s favor. So peace comes to those whom God favors.
(15) When the angels had left them and gone back to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has made known to us.”
The shepherds made a collective decision to seek Jesus. They believed what the Angel of the Lord told because they considered it as a God’s message to them. We need to trust the representatives of God and go to church for communal worship, where Jesus comes down and offers sacrifice for us.
(16) So they went hurriedly and found Mary and Joseph with the baby lying in the manger.
The shepherds were enthusiastic to worship the newborn Savior. So, they went in haste to seek the Lord. They found God in human flesh as an innocent child lying in a manger. They had no difficulty in believing and welcoming such a humble God.
(17) On seeing this they related what they had been told about the child.
The shepherds became the first evangelizers of Jesus. They had an amazing experience that they could not hold within their heart. So, they shared that to whoever they could. Since they were of inferior status in the society, only people close to their status listened to them and believed the message.
(18) And all were astonished on hearing the shepherds.
What would be the subject of amazement of those who heard the shepherds?
1. How could the Messiah be born in such a helpless condition?
2. Why the angels communicated the message to the humble shepherds?
3. Why the angels did not communicate through the official channel like the High Priest or King Herod?
Many might have visited the infant Jesus based on the witnessing of the shepherds. But only the humble could see the “Son of God” in that baby.
(19) As for Mary, she treasured all these words and continually pondered over them.
The Evangelist Luke who interviewed Mary, to write his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, realized how all the visions, experiences, and witnessing associated with the birth of Jesus and thereafter were clear in her mind. Luke gives more infancy narrative of Jesus than the other evangelists. Mary was the firsthand source to give these details. She, who had an excellent knowledge of the Holy Scripture from her training in the Temple of Jerusalem, realized that all the prophesies about the Messiah was coming true at her sight. So, she kept reflecting on them.
(20) The shepherds then returned giving glory and praise to God for all they had seen and heard, just as the angels had told them.
The shepherds had witnessed what the Angel of the Lord had told them. They became the first believers in the Messiah. When they came to know Jesus, their reaction was to glorify and praise God just as Zechariah glorified and praised God when God opened his mouth after naming his son John.