In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered.4 Joseph 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And 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.
Luke 2: 1-7
There are mangers in our world, numerous and everywhere. Let us visit one such manger before we turn to Bethlehem. Recently I read about a manger in the British newspaper Independent. It is located in the Netherlands. Of late, we have been reading about “refugees” fleeing their homes in the Middle East to find homes in other countries. Only those who have made such move understand its pain.
Fatima is a pregnant 14-year-old. A Syrian refugee, she found a place in a Dutch asylum. Not getting the needed medical care, Fatima “escaped” from the resettlement area. According to the report, she is one of numerous pregnant women ineligible for maternity care. Fatima doesn’t have a marriage certificate. Her marriage was either not registered in Syria or, even if it was, she did not have the luxury of securing it from the militant invaders. Choosing to live, Fatima would have run for her own life as well as for the life inside her womb. Her 40 year old husband and her own family abused her. Now, the Dutch health system continues to do so by denying her health care.
A master story-teller, Luke weaves God’s story with two human tales. One is of the decree by Emperor Augustus calling his subjects to register their names, a measure to enforce law and order, perhaps to track potential threats to the pax romana. Empires thrive by displacing people and at the same find the displaced a threat to their survival. The Roman emperor required every family to register their names in the ancestral village. Neither online registrations nor special accommodations were available. They had travel in person, no matter what it took or cost to travel.
The second story is that of Mary and her fiancé Joseph. It is a tale of a child yet to be born. Mary was expecting a baby and it could come any time. The couple should be preparing a cradle in Nazareth. But they are traveling to Bethlehem, aliens in their homeland and unwelcomed at home. The baby in the womb no longer brings joy. He becomes a burden, a sign that would be opposed (Luke 2:34). The 90 mile ride by donkey wasn’t fun, I bet. As usual, the reputation of becoming a mother before wedding would have traveled faster, closing all the doors. There was no room in the inn. Thankfully, hills have caves and caves accommodate animals and perhaps homeless people. Such a trough was enough for God to incarnate. God is more at home at the margins than at the centers, more at trenches than at inns.
Angels bring the word. They did not report to the census officers. Rather they announced the news to shepherds, awaiting the salvation of Israel. God doesn’t give in to imperial edicts but rather joins the aspirations of the masses seeking God’s intervention. A sign is given, not the first time nor the last time, the sign of finding the savior wrapped in swaddling clothes. This sign is complete only when God’s people recognize the savior at the social margins, in the mangers wrapped in rugged cloths.
We have heard the word that the savior is born. Ministers and educators, we have so far investigated who Christ is and what Christ did. The good news sends us beyond these questions. It invites our Christology and soteriology to look where Christ is and what Christ is doing, Sri Lankan Jesuit theologian Aloysius Pieris reminds us.
By the way, Christmas is here, just three days away. And we have many mangers both across the seas and right here in our own backyard, among the masses fleeing their homes for life and the despised populations in our own neighborhoods. May the good God who gave a sign to shepherds and opened their eyes to recognize infant Jesus and may the same God who opened the eyes of the grieving disciples in Emmaus to recognize the risen Christ open our eyes to find Christ in the mangers of our society!
A prayer for this day:
Gracious God, you reveal yourself in mysterious ways and in unexpected places. Open our eyes to discern your work in the mangers of our society and grant us the passion to join you there, as we celebrate the birth of your son and our savior. Amen.
Dr. James Taneti (PhD, 2012)