These were the prophetic words of Zechariah the priest, when his tongue was loosed to praise the Word of God who had become incarnate.
The Word of God who created the world had now entered the world in the womb of a virgin, as the Second Adam became incarnate in the womb of a virgin Second Eve.
Mary, the lowly maidservant from Galilee had conceived in her womb, and she become the Mother of God as the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, filled her, hovered over her in the new creation for the redemption of man and the renewal of all things.
The Theotokos was full of grace, the Lord was with her; blessed is she among all women, because blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus. The Fall of men was being reversed, and that lowly maidservant magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior. Now it is time for the Son of God to be born, as the light was to shine ever brighter in the darkness of fallen mankind.
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.
As it is characteristic of Luke’s writing, he grounds his narrative in history. This is very important not only for the objective placement of the events he is describing, but also as a reminder that Christianity is not merely an ideology. God has entered time and space, and he has redeemed humanity by changing history. God has not become a Man eternally or timelessly, but he became incarnate in the womb of a Virgin in a particular day of a particular week of a particular month and year. Mary was about to give birth in the year that there was a decree that went out from Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, that all the world should be registered.
Scholars debate precisely when this happened, but evidence points that it was between 6 and 4 BC. Luke tells us that the decree was that “all the world” should be registered, and this immediately sets up the universal significance of Christ’s birth, because Luke is comparing and contrasting the decree of the ruler of the world, the Roman emperor, with the decree of God. Augustus’ decree was to affect the whole world (which is Biblical language referring to their world), but God’s decree was to affect the whole humanity and indeed the whole cosmos. The emperor wants to number the people so he can tax them, but God embodies humanity to give himself to it, as gathers his people to himself.
In order to be registered, Joseph takes his family with him to the designated city. He is taking with him a young teenager to whom he is betrothed, and yet carrying a Child who is not his son. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, had resolved to divorce her quietly, but an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” And so Joseph, described as a righteous man, also receives the Word of God by faith and takes Mary to himself trusting in God’s promises – and in this way he was also embracing Mary’s joy as well as the pain that was to come.
Joseph and Mary had to register in the city according to their clan, which was the tribe of Judah, the house of the king David. The legitimate heir to David’s throne was about to be born, and his parents, descendents of David, go to Bethlehem, the city where king David had been born and anointed king 1000 years earlier This is also a fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah, given 700 years before Christ:
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)
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.
The Mother of God gives birth to God the Son – and this takes place not in the most glorious royal palace there could be, as it would be fitting, but in the place where the animals were (tradition says it was a cave), because there was no place for them in the guest house in Bethlehem. There was no place in this world for the very creator of the world, for, as John tells us, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
Now God the Son has been born, and the baby is wrapped in cloths and laid on a manger. The creator and sustainer of the world comes to redeem the world, but he comes not in his unveiled glory, but as a frail baby who needs to be cared for, fed, nourished, protected, and loved. God becomes a Man and so he does not merely relate to humanity externally, as one whom we only encounter only the outside and as one deals with us merely through judicial decrees. No, he also takes humanity upon himself completely, for, as the Fathers remind us, that which he has not taken upon himself, he cannot redeem. The Logos fully assumes a human nature, excepting sin (since sin is not natural or inherent in human nature); as he becomes truly human, he is able then to redeem us entirely.
As the baby is born, he is wrapped in cloths and laid on a manger. Later in Luke’s gospel, he will use the same words to describe a different event: he was also wrapped in cloths and laid in a tomb. It is not by accident that ancient representations of the birth of Jesus depict the baby Jesus being laid on a manger wrapped in linen cloths in the style used for burial – for God was born as a man so that he would die as a man and be resurrected as a man for our redemption. Even from his birth, his path was towards the cross and the grave, so he would destroy death there.
Ironically, the baby is laid on a manger. He is not laid on a royal, golden crib, as it would be fitting for the King of Kings, but on a feeding trough used to feed animals. The one who created all things was indeed to become the slain lamb of God who would give himself for the spiritual food of his people. The bread of heaven has come to feed us, and thus from his birth he is put on a feeding trough. The one who is wrapped in his birth and in his death is also put on the place of feeding because he had also come to be the food of sinners.
The Glory of God
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
As the Son of God is born, the glory of the Lord is shining brighter than ever. It is not shining in the great city of Jerusalem, on in the great temple there; but in the countryside, because he came not only to save the Jews but the whole world. The glory of the Lord shone with the multitude of his heavenly hosts not before the religious leaders of Israel but before the shepherds, who were considered to be one of the lowest classes in Israel. The angel of God comes to call shepherds to worship the one to become the ultimate Shepherd of our souls.
The glory of the Lord is shining to point to that very glory which is now concealed in a weak and defenseless baby lying in a feeding trough in a cave. The shepherds are told, “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” He is the Savior of mankind, and thus his name is Jesus: Joshua, YHWH saves. He is Christ, because he is the anointed one to be prophet, priest and king for our redemption. And he is Lord, because that defenseless and needy little baby was YHWH himself.
And thus a multitude of the heavenly host praises God saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” The birth that has just taken place might seem insignificant – in a cave, in a small village, of poor parents, laying on a manger, animals laying around – but that birth is the pivotal point in history, affecting heaven and earth, affecting past, present, and future, affecting God who becomes man and man who is redeemed to be united to God.
The shepherds were keeping guard of their flock by night, and it is in the night that Jesus is born and that the glory of the Lord shines. It is in the darkness of sinful humanity that God sends his own Son to be the light of the world. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And so he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”
Consecration to God
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Following the Law, Jesus was circumcised on the eight day, and following the Jewish custom (as with John the Baptist), he was officially given the name Jesus on that day. Also according to the Law, a woman who had given birth had to undergo ritual purification for forty days, and then make an offering for her purification. Mary then went to the temple in Jerusalem to make the offering, and the firstborn would also be presented before the Lord according to the Law, as we are told in Exodus 12: “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.”
The firstborn was to be consecrated and redeemed because God had spared the Israelite firstborn children at the Passover in Egypt, when the angel passed over the Hebrew children because of the blood of the Lamb on the doorpost. Also, God considered all the firstborn to be devoted to him for priesthood, and the non-Levite families were allowed to redeem the firstborn by an offering. Now the ultimate High Priest is consecrated to God.
His Poverty, Our Riches
According to the Law, if the parents cannot afford a lamb, then they could take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. This makes clear that Joseph and Mary were poor, because they could not afford the lamb for the offering. The Son of God was born not in a palace amongst the riches that are befitting him, but in a cave, laid on a manger, born of poor parents that could not afford a lamb, because Jesus came to redeem humanity in all its frailty, including poverty.
Ironically, when Mary was presenting the two turtledoves and the two pigeons, she was also presenting the Lamb of God for the offering that would take away the sins of the world. Mary and Joseph could not afford a lamb, but as with Abraham, the Lord was providing himself a Lamb for the sacrifice.
God humbled himself for the redemption of his people, and he comes into the world as a baby born of poor parents. Contrary to those who would think that poverty is necessarily a sign of sin or of God’s displeasure, God made himself poor in every way so that we might become rich with redemption, spiritual healing, and eternal life.
The Church does function as a vehicle of God’s blessings to alleviate the physical and material needs of God’s people – and we ought to do that always and to the best of our ability, for a faith that sees a brother and a sister in need and neglects their plight is an empty and false faith.
And yet, it is precisely by taking poverty upon himself that Jesus tells us that poverty is not God’s curse. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Sell your possessions,” He says, “and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Poverty and riches are different states of life within God’s providence, but true riches are those given us by God through faith, which are riches and treasures in heaven.
Mary and Joseph were poor and yet they were actually very rich, for they held the very Son of God in their arms, the one who had come to save with his glory concealed in weakness and poverty. The Son of God was rich as he owned the whole universe, and yet he was born in a poor family. We also may be very poor, but whether poor or rich in the world’s standards, we have infinite riches in the grace of God which pardons, heals, transforms, resurrects, and glorifies.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
Again we have another man introduced in the narrative who is described as righteous and devout. Elizabeth and Zechariah were described and blameless in the commandments of the Lord, Mary was full of grace, Joseph was a righteous man, and now Simeon is a righteous and devout man who through faith was waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. The narrative of the birth of the Son of God involves God working in and through the lives of people who, while not sinless, were devout and holy people who devoted their lives to pleasing God and walking in his commandments.
These were the people who, because of their devotion, were filled with the Holy Spirit, and who had eyes to see and ears to hear that which God was bringing about. They are examples to us in that God’s grace given us requires our cooperation, our synergy with him – which in turn brings about our deification.
They are models for us, who also are called (as Paul says) not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption, but to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being diligent (as Peter says) to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.
Simeon, the righteous and devout man, was thus the friend of God, and God had revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. The same Holy Spirit who will lead John the Baptist – and eventually even Christ – to the desert, here leads Simeon to the temple, where God had promised to manifest his glory.
Simeon the righteous man is looking with faith for the fulfillment of God’s promises to redeem his people, and this is his whole purpose in life. Simeon is also a type of the Old Covenant, which, for those who had faith, was the revelation of God’s holiness and the vehicle of his promises and his grace until that time when the Savior would come. Now he has come, and the Old Covenant is ready to pass away, having fulfilled its purpose to lead the righteous to the grace and coming of Christ.
And so Simeon prays, in what is called the Nunc Dimittis, and says, Lord, dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation! I have waited all my life for your promise, and by your grace you gave me such a privilege as to hold the very Creator and Redeemer of the universe in my arms.
And behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed – and Mary, a sword will pierce through your own soul also, for in a very real sense his suffering will be your suffering, and his cross will be your cross.
The narrative concludes in the verses following with the description of Anna, a prophetess, a devout widow advanced in age who did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour, we are told, she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Prophet, Priest and King – Immanuel, God with Us
The beginning of the Gospel of Luke presents us with the Advent of Christ, given us through the historical narrative interwoven in the lives of holy people who pleased God and were looking for his promises. Elizabeth and Zechariah were of the priestly house who were chosen to be the parents of forerunner of the Lord; Mary and Joseph were of the royal house of David chosen to be the parents of the Son of God (Mary receiving the greatest blessing and honor of all as the Theotokos, the Blessed Mother of God); Simeon and Anna were the devout servants of the Lord who prophesied in his temple and saw the fulfillment of this promises.
In this way, these people were all fulfilling the offices of prophets, priests, and kings around the conception and birth of the ultimate Prophet, Priest and King who had finally come to redeem his people from sin and death.
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” said Isaiah the prophet, and as that prophecy was partially fulfilled in his immediate context 700 years before Christ, now the ultimate fulfillment has come through a literal Virgin Birth, and a baby who was literally Immanuel, God with us.
Christmas: Redemption of the Physical Universe
Christmas is a great time to join with family, to give and receive presents and gifts, and everything that goes with that. But most importantly it is a time to remember that commercialism and family functions are not the essence of Advent season. This is the time to consider the great event of God becoming man for our salvation. It is a time to remember that God has taken upon himself our own humanity with all its frailties and limitations to go to the grave with it, and then break the bars of death with it.
Humanity has been redeemed in Christ, death has been conquered, there is a fully human man sitting at the right hand of the Father, a man now glorified and united to God in his humanity, so that he might take us there with him.
He has sanctified birth, and he has sanctified death. He has sanctified riches and poverty, time and space, history and people. The incarnation reminds us that Christianity is not merely a set of timeless ideas, although it includes that. Christianity is not Gnosticism, and so it is not merely a vehicle of salvation through ideas, or through knowledge, or through the right propositional statements and confessions, although it includes those.
Christianity is a faith of flesh and blood that redeems not only the soul and the heart, but also the whole body, the man, the woman, one’s whole life, and the whole cosmos.
The Christian faith is the revelation of God who not only is truth, but also embodies truth, who enters history, enters time and space, enters humanity, is born, lives, eats, cries, dies, is risen from the dead. God knows humanity from inside because he has become man.
God redeems the soul and the body, thoughts and feelings, physical and spiritual ailments and needs. Jesus Christ is the God-man. He sanctifies physical things as holy, because everything he created is good and is worthy to be redeemed. He sanctifies water, bread, and wine as means of grace.
He sanctifies fallible human beings as his Church, the vehicle of His grace to the world. He sanctifies joy and pain, marriage, motherhood and fatherhood, youth and old age, richness and poverty, heath and sickness, the blessing of life and the pain of death.
St. Athanasius, one of the greatest of the church fathers, has written much on implications and the blessings the incarnation has for us. Here’s some of what he has said in his book On the Incarnation:
The incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are.
But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us . . . pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery . . . He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. . . . through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, [all] men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection . . .For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death. . . .
He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. . . . such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves.
Christ is born for the redemption of humanity. He was born for our salvation, he has died for our salvation, and he has risen again for our salvation.
Let us, like John the Baptist, be impelled by the Spirit into the wilderness of this world to be Christ’s witnesses there; like Simeon, impelled by the Spirit to his temple, the Church, so that there we may see his glory. Like Mary, let us submit to God, saying, let it be done according to thy will; and as the Spirit abides in the Church, let Christ be continually be formed in us, born in us, as we bring him forth as the life of the world.
Let us come to the Altar, the Manger, to partake of the very flesh and blood of the lamb of God laid for us. Let us partake of his life, for in him light has shone in our darkness.
For unto us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.