It is difficult to come at Luke 2 with anything other than the serene picture many of us carry around of the “silent night” of the first Christmas Eve. And yet, this passage is replete with subversive undertones. It is this upsetting of expectations that provides the subtext of the entire chapter.
The census that Rome mandates isn’t the benign form we are familiar with in 21st century America. A census in the ancient world was taken to figure out what various subject regions “owed” the Empire. It was an intrusive reminder that they were a people oppressed by a foreign power. They weren’t free to determine their own steps.
And yet, little does Rome know that there is a Power far greater at work even in and through their attempts to exert imperial authority. God’s purposes and promises have been slowly and quietly unfolding over centuries. So as Caesar Augustus’ decree moves a small “insignificant” family to the father’s ancestral home of Nazareth, God’s promise of an eternal dynasty from the line of David is coming to fruition this small town. The question that lingers is “who is in control?”
The birth itself is rather unremarkable, “the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger.” Even more unremarkable are those that welcome the savior into the world… shepherds. Not power brokers. Not religious elite. Not even respectable middle-class citizenry. Just common shepherds. The subversive question here is “who really matters?”
Even something as simple as presenting young Jesus at the Temple turns into a chance to see the Messiah with fresh eyes. The young family is greeted by two old faithful Jews, both of whom were eagerly looking forward to the one who would save Israel. And yet, the brief exchange between old and young records a cryptic prophecy concerning not just salvation for Israel but all people. Perhaps even more disconcerting would have been Simeon’s words about the “falling and rising of many in Israel” and the “sword that will pierce” Mary’s soul in some way. The question here would be “Is the mission of the Messiah really what we have thought it to be all along?”
The story of tween Jesus lost in Jerusalem for three days only to be found in discourse with the religious academics poignantly carries the subversion of expectations motif forward. When Mary finds him, she scolds him in the way that most any mother would, “Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” And yet, Jesus’ response is perhaps the beginning of the soul-piercing spoken of a few verses earlier, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” While I don’t think this is an example of Jesus copping a pre-pubescent attitude, the question posed here (as well as the next couple chapters) is “Exactly whose son is this?”