Only God could call a census in the Old Testament. Counting the number of people was a way to raise taxes and armies, the foundations of civil power. The Jews, however, believed that all real power came from God and that a census was a sign of distrust. When David tried this, the entire country was punished by a plague which killed thousands of people. (2 Samuel 24.1-25) The biblically astute would hear that “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled “. (Lk 2:1) and recall the earlier words of Mary about God: “He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. (Lk 1:52)”. The most long-lasting effect of this massive mobilization of the Roman Empire was that Jesus be born in Bethlehem and put in a manger. God’s desires were accomplished, not the Emperor’s.
First, why Bethlehem? Bethlehem is called “the city of David”. It was here that David was called by Samuel the prophet to be King. (1 Sam 16:1–13) and it was prophesied “But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah / least among the clans of Judah, / From you shall come forth for me / one who is to be ruler in Israel” (Mic 5:1) God promised David that he would be with him and his posterity forever. (2 Samuel 7:12–16). Although there was not a active or even visible king in Judea for centuries, God does not forget his promise. Mary indeed is told at the Annunciation: “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father (Lk 1:32).
Is this merely symbolic or is Jesus to be a military leader and challenge Roman authority? Neither. Luke is telling us that God will fulfill his promise to the house of David by using a member of that house, Jesus, to accomplish his will. The ideas of the Messiah were developed over the centuries and one task that became increasingly important was to restore the lost tribes. These are the 10 tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel scattered centuries before (721 BC) by the Assyrians. This can be legitimately accomplished only by a son of David, so it is important that Jesus establish his credentials at his birth. Note however when this is accomplished. The Holy Spirit came upon the assembled disciples at Pentecost, including the 12 Apostles, in wind and fire. Having 12 was so important that a successor for the traitor Judas was needed before the spirit would descend. This was to represent all 12 tribes of the Jewish people. But equally as important was that once their restoration and unity was sealed by the Spirit, they were sent into the world. A development over the centuries among the Jews was that they were given the responsibility to be a “light to the nations”. They were chosen to bring knowledge of the true God to everyone. Jesus always does more than fulfill expectations Jesus bursts the seams of any title or prophecy.
Second, why the manger? First a manger is a feeding trough for large animals. It is made of stone. Otherwise it would be almost immediately smashed. It is a powerful symbol in itself, but has a history in the Scriptures. At the very beginning of Isaiah, we read:
3 An ox knows its owner,
and an ass, its master’s manger;
But Israel does not know,
my people has not understood (Is 1:3).
Jesus has come because we are lost. We do not know from where or to whom we belong. Luke sees that this is a question of worship. People will need to come together to worship God through Jesus. Thus, at the end of Luke’s Gospel Jesus will be “wrapped … in a linen shroud, and laid … in a rock-hewn tomb” (23:53) This recalls both the manger and the swaddling clothes. He is truly the lamb of God born to be sacrificed for us. This is also a reference to the Eucharist. St Augustine put this most succinctly: “Laid in a manger, he became our food” (Sermon 189, 4) This is a winsome sign, but one whose only real fulfillment is our regular reception of the Eucharist at Mass.
Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth seeks to cast us down with Caesar from whatever throne we have erected for ourselves. As we have seen Jesus may have entered the world like us as a baby, but he is placed in very adult circumstances and brings a very adult message. To follow him we must join with him in his body, the Church, through participation in the Eucharist. Nothing lowers our defenses quicker than a baby. They are disarming but demanding and have cast down many of us from our pretensions.
Let us look at the baby Jesus today and let our guard go down so that we will love him as completely as we do the babies we will see this season, but let us recognize the demands of following Him. If we do them both the promise of the angels will be ours: “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests”.