In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Why would a young couple travel by foot or perhaps by donkey for over a week to go from one village to another just at the time their baby was due? Luke says the angel had come to Mary in Nazareth, that after visiting Elizabeth she had gone back to Nazareth – she was now living in the home of Joseph, her fiance. But the prophecies say that the Christ will be born in Bethlehem. And so, Luke finds the census ordered by the Emperor to be the reason for this perilous journey. It sets up, in Luke’s story, the contrast between imperial power and the true power found in Jesus. Bethlehem is Joseph’s home town, and he must return there. It is the City of David, and it is through the lineage of his adoptive father that Jesus is accounted a Son of David. The return to Bethlehem emphasizes this, as well as the fulfillment of prophecy!
The young couple were poor – they traveled by foot or donkey, and when they arrived could find no place to stay. All of the commentaries remind us that the word we translate “inn” could mean room or guest room as well as inn – we see then that there was no room, even among family, for this child to be born. And so, Mary gave birth to her Son, and she wrapped him in “strips of cloth” – here I still like the King James, “swaddling cloths” – and laid him in a feeding trough. The great King of the Universe, the divine Son of God, comes to us – as a human baby, born of a woman, and laid to rest in a feeding trough.
Luke is emphasizing that Jesus was born – he speaks of Mary’s virginity in the annunciation – but the emphasis now is that Jesus is born. It is an emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. He is also emphasizing the poverty into which Jesus is born – and contrasts it to the wealth of Caesar. Caesar thinks he rules the world – we see that in the proclamation of the census – but his proclamation only ends up serving God’s plan, that the babe be born in Bethlehem. Jesus could have come as a king, or a wealthy man, or, like John, to the family of a priest. He could have been born in a queen’s bower, laid in a golden cradle. But he was born to a poor couple who were displaced by imperial decree – and he was born in a stable. And throughout Luke we will see that Jesus identifies with the poor and the displaced.
This is one of the most loved passages of scripture – I love the images it provides. The babe in a manger, Mary and Joseph beside him – the animals looking on in amazement. We will soon come to Advent, and to the time when we celebrate the birth of the Savior, as a babe laid in a manger.
At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem