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Friends in low places ... A Christmas reflection by Archdeacon Stringfellow

From the Lectionaries
Friends in low places
by Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow
Luke 2:1-20
24 December 2009

Herod was King of Judea (1:5, at the annunciation to Zechariah) while Augustus was Emperor (2:1), but Herod died before Quirinius was governor of Syria (2:2). Luke has got the facts wrong, but what really is the harm? The tradition had Jesus’ birth during the reign of Herod (as in Matthew), and Luke has to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem as the birth there is an important messianic credential. Quirinius was the one who ordered the census. Telling the story of Jesus compellingly for Luke is a higher priority than scrupulosity about the facts. And he may not have had all the facts available to him.

And a compelling story it is. Beautifully and simply structured, the narrative tells separately how Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem and how the child is born. Then the angels appear to the shepherds and direct them to Mary, Joseph, and the baby. The shepherds go, and they are united with the holy family. They see the child spoken of by the angels and begin immediately to tell the story and “all who heard it were amazed” (2:18) while Mary, by contrast, treasures all the words and ponders them (2:19).

The device of prophecy and fulfillment ties the structure together in “bands of cloth” and “a manger” (2:7 and 2:12). We hear of Mary wrapping the baby in the bands of cloth and laying him in a manger; we hear the angels mentioning those same bands of cloth and that same manger in the “sign” the angels give the shepherds. When the shepherds go to Bethlehem, the “sign” is as the angels have said: “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger” (2:16). We don’t have to be told that the bands of cloth are there. We know already that they are there. Through our memory and our imagination we know they are there.

The contrast of the highest and the lowest also buttresses the structure of the narrative and the import of the birth of Jesus. The heavens open and an angel of the Lord stands before the shepherds out in the fields. The single angel is joined by a multitude of the heavenly army who from the fields praises God in the highest heaven: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (2:15).

God in the highest places has a relationship with people in the lowest places. Luke tells the story of an arc of relationship that curves around Herod, Augustus, and Quirinius. They are in the story, but their role simply dates the events. They have only very limited and indirect influence on the events comprising the narrative. Though some see the world ruled by them, the story concerns the world’s true ruler, God, and the “poor,” those who have little beyond their need of God, those whose need of God leads them to accept God as their true ruler though they comply with earthly law.

The contrast of the “poor” and the “rich” also informs the narrative that includes none that is “rich.” Mary and Joseph are obedient people of the land who comply with the order of the census. Despite the inconvenience of the impending birth, they pick their things up and make the journey to Bethlehem where they are but transients who can make no claim upon a place to stay other than the place where animals are fed. Similarly the shepherds are among the commonest laborers. They work around the clock, and their principal concern is not even common people but animals. Their poverty figures their need and acceptance of God. They are the ones who find favor with God.

[The Ven. Howard Stringellow is Archdeacon for the Diocese of Bethlehem and supply priest for Good Shepherd Scranton]

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