We all know St. Luke’s compact and yet detailed account of the birth of Christ in a Bethlehem stable, how the baby was “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and then visited by wondering herdsmen from the nearby hills.
As dopey as it sounds in our calloused times, Luke tells how shepherds in the fields “tending their flocks by night” were visited by an angel who brought them “good tidings of Great Joy” for “all people” that “unto you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”
Angel? Chorus? Good Tidings? Yea sure, saith many. It’s a COVID Christmas. Where are the “good tidings?” Vaccines are coming, but we’re not yet able to relax precautions.
We are given more in this packed account from Luke 2, a template into how government’s unrelenting hand impacts us all, something we can all relate to in this time of mask mandates which Biden promises to expand.
Luke relates how a “decree went out from Caesar Augustus” that every person – man, woman, child – would go to the town of their origin to be taxed. And so that is what Joseph did, taking along his wife Mary, she being “great with child.” to be counted and taxed as well.
Those who think broad government edicts are a new idea should read this again; even in Roman times, government’s hand touched everyone. Mary was to be taxed along with Joseph. Now that’s true gender equality.
The Middle East in those times were under Rome’s military and civilian control, so what the governors decreed, that was what was done. Luke does not tell us explicitly here, but other sources (chiefly Josephus) relate how Rome’s governance was hardly a light and loving touch. Tax collectors and edicts were everywhere.
Yet Luke proudly proclaims the symbolic import of this baby’s coming into the world that dark night, a symbol of peace and love for all humanity.
Current COVID angst and political turmoil aside, isn’t that the essential meaning of Christmas? That the affairs of men are but specks of dust in a dark night through which Christ’s birth and life shine as a beacon, calling us all to “Goodness and Light” as the Christmas carol says?
Luke has been called the “great physician” by Biblical scholars and he’s often depicted as a medical doctor in Medieval art. But he was also a detailed reporter -- one of history’s early known journalists – whose account is widely regarded as the best and most accurate of Christ’s birth.
Yet, Luke makes it clear he is no fan of Roman order and authority. In today’s politics, he might be a Libertarian, disdainful of government agents and Pharisees. Christ, he says, (Luke 23) stands mute before Pilate, who turns him over to the baying crowd of persecutors. See, says one, Christ’s own enigmatic words condemn him.
It is a passage which foresees Paul in Galatians: (5:1) “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
Is that not another lesson from Luke’s story: live in the freedom which Christ has given us, in the spiritual sense, and “be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage?”
It’s tempting to draw lessons from Luke’s account for today’s confounding politics. Is Trump, as some think, the ‘Savior” brought to us to lead a rejuvenation of cultural values in American life? Or are House Congressional Democrats the real “saviors” of American life, standing up to a usurper and falsely-elected “king?”
What would Luke say? It’s tempting to think Luke would echo Christ’s own words, telling us to set aside petty things in these strident times and strive to live better together, separate and apart perhaps, but seeking common ground where we can.
Isn’t that what Christ means when he later says to Peter, “Feed my sheep?” It’s a reference back to the symbolic image we have of Christ’s birth in the manger with an angel telling those watchful shepherds, do not fear, God is with us, Emmanuel.
Merry Christmas, all.
Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee. Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of the new book “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com. An earlier version of this column appeared on December 22, 2019.