Recently I discussed Christmas with my little nieces. We were looking at the X-mas crib. They explained me about baby Jesus, who was born. And they could tell me that Mary was his mother, and Joseph his father. And about the shepherds and angels. Obviously they had been well taught by my sister what to respond to their uncle-priest!
However, what struck me hearing tonight’s reading, is that two persons were missing in my sister’s Christmas crib. For the reading also spoke about Augustus, the emperor, who wished to count the people so that he could impose taxes. And we heard about Quirinius, the local governor in Syria. I’ve never seen a Christmas crib with these two people present. And I’m pretty sure that you have not either.
That leaves us with something of a mystery. For the fact that they are named must have a significance. Their names were not there to have the facts straight, for the gospel was not written to instruct us in history. Luke is not a historian; Luke is a gospel writer. The bible is not a history book; the bible, or Scripture, is about salvation. That is to say: the point is God, not historical details. Now what does God have to do with these names? What does Luke want to tell us about God through referring to Augustus and Quirinius?
I think a first step fo finding the answer may be to rephrase Augustus and Quirinius. In our time Luke could have written, for example, the following:
“In those days, when Donald Trump was elected elected to be the next president of the US, in those days, a baby was born, clothed in swaddling clothes, Christ, the saviour”. Perhaps that election was something of a shock to you. How can such a blunt, self-interested person pretend to care for others, for a country? Or you may think, what a pity that there will be no woman president. Other persons may feel relieved that it wasn’t going to be Hillary? Or that, at last, the establishment was defeated? My point, however, is not to comment on Hillary or Trump, but simply to suggest: this is how Luke may write it in our time.
He could also say: “In those days, when Geert Wilders became the voice of a growing number of dissatisified citizens”. Or: “In those days, with all sorts of wars in the middle east and, closer at home, of a flood of refugees”. Or would Luke focus on single events, and put “In those days, when terrorists attacked an elderly priest in Rouen, whilst he was celebrating mass with a group of parishioners, on a weekday morning, in those days, Christ the Lord was born”. Or would he opt for a positive event, and recall that the birth of Christ happened in the days that pope Francis, who is a blessing to so many, inside or outside the Church?
Now we may start to understand what Luke was after with those names. He wanted to tell about the birth of baby Jesus, not as a general story, but as one that was happening in a concrete time and place. And not in an idealised world, but in our world as we experience it daily ourselves: in our world that is complicated, with its tensions, big and small. Our world with angry and dissatisfied people; with homeless and refugees, in that world is Christ born. And precisely that is gospel. That is good news. That is Christmas.
Thus by mentioning those names, Luke makes clear that God wishes to be close to us, not in the abstract, but concretely. God wants to take part in our history as it really is. ((Theology calls that ‘incarnation’. Usually, we use difficult words when we don’t know how to say it otherwise. This case is no exception. It is truly mysterious that the deepest foundation of our lives, the goodness of God, wants to be part of our times.)) That means: under the reign of August. And similarly, in our time, that is, when Trump is going to be president. When a priest in Rouen was killed. When pope Francis is a blessing for the Church and the world.
You may object and ask: how is God there amidst all that is going on? Surely not all that is going on speaks of God: violence, tensions, dissatisfaction, unemployment, and so on. How is God there, concretely?
Now that is a beautiful question. And it is not a rational question, a theoretical one; but a concrete one, one that has to do with our lives, with my life, with your life. How is God born in the midst of my concrete existence, of yours? With its highs and lows?
Now it is time to return to my nieces, and to the persons they pointed out to me: Joseph, Mary, Jesus. No impressive heroes of the history. Normal people, even somewhat on the poor side. And in the case of Jesus, a powerless baby. If we are to find God in all things, in our world, in my world, we should look for normal things, for all that is small and powerless. We should pray for the gift that we may see. We should pray for the gift to wonder. To note God’s hidden presence – in things as unprobable and powerless as a baby.
This may not change big history. The facts remain the same. Yet somehow we shall detect God’s hidden presence: in goodness of friends, perhaps unexpectedly; in the beauty of nature, that we may easily overlook; in the mildness and wisdom of people around us, that we may take for granted; in the patience and peace we sense in the debt of our souls, and that we may not pay attention to.
I wish ourselves – myself, yourself – the blessing of a big heart open to God. That we may see the God’s grace and goodness in our concrete history.
(Krijtberg, 24-12-2016, Midnight mass.)