Having just celebrated Easter, we’re back into Christmas with this chapter!
Luke starts the chapter with one characteristic bit and continues with another. First he sets Jesus’ birth in a clear historical frame. Unlike all the myths of the birth of pagan heroes and demigods, this doesn’t take place in some unnamed mythic time, but while Augustus was Emperor and Quirinius was governor. I know that there are all sorts of historical debates about the census (was it the whole world or just Palestine? When exactly did it happen? What does it mean to say ‘their own towns’? etc.) Luke’s meaning is clear. This is a real event within human history, not a parable. This fits with the whole emphasis of Luke’s telling of events ‘in order’, having studied his sources.
He goes on to bring in another of his emphases. While Matthew tells of Jesus’ birth being greeted by foreign sages with rich gifts, Luke points us to the marginalised poor – shepherds, living literally on the edge of the community. They are the ones who greet the Messiah with joy in response to the angels’ announcement.
Luke then tells us of Jesus’ childhood in the second half of the chapter. His coming to the Temple was recognised only by two elderly prophets – but in itself, it’s a continuning identification of Jesus with what has gone before through the Old Testament. The redeeming of the firstborn goes back to the first Passover, and God’s own firstborn now shares in the ritual remembering of his people. Simeon’s words of praise point to the opening out of God’s purposes through Jesus to the nations, just as his words of warning prepare the way for the conflict and pain that will mark the way to this opening out.
Then we have our one reliable account of the later childhood of Jesus (despite all the later ‘gospels’ that would try to fill in the gaps with inspirational stories!). And it’s not the gentle, obedient, plaster-halo version of Jesus that fills so many Christmas Carols for children. This Jesus wanders off from his parents in the Big City, Jerusalem, without an apparent concern for their feelings, or any understanding that they may see the world differently from him.
It’s a powerful reminder that being sinless didn’t stop Jesus having to go through a normal adolescence. And perhaps it’s a worthwhile reminder to parents of adolescents (which includes me!) that their ‘different’ take on the world isn’t necessarily sinful – after all, if Jesus could be so blind to his parents’ anguish…
I’d still love to have heard what Mary and Joseph had to say to him on the way back to Nazareth.