1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. 2 This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Lk 2:1-7)
I make the bold claim that Lk 2:6-7 are the most beautiful words ever written. Luke’s description of Jesus’ birth is exquisite.
This passage begins with a secular historical context involving the Roman emperor (Caesar) Augustus, who ruled the empire from 27 BC until 14 AD, and Quirinius, who was legate of Syria (which at that time included Judea) from 6 AD until 12 AD. We know from other historical sources that Quirinius administered a census in 6 AD. Luke’s historical context presents us with problems. We know that King Herod the Great, whom Matthew presents as antagonist at Jesus’ birth, died around 4 BC to 1 BC. But here in Luke, Jesus was born during a census which occurred in 6 AD. How to reconcile? It would seem there must have been a census before Quirinius, one that occurred while Herod was alive. We have some evidence from two early church fathers. St. Justin Martyr (born 100 AD in Judea) wrote that Quirinus was governor of Judea (a predecessor of Pontius Pilate) at the time of Christ’s birth; he would later become legate of Syria. Tertullian (b. 155 AD) wrote that the legate of Syria at the time of Jesus’ birth was one Saturninus. Then, Quirinius was not governor of Syria at the time of Jesus’ birth, as Luke says, but of Judea. And while we don’t know all of the census’ carried out under Caesar Augustus (there were several), we know of at least one in 3 BC in Judea: an oath of allegiance to the emperor, not directly for taxation purposes. I mention this chronology “controversy” only to note the importance of historical scholarship in Scriptural exegesis. (I don’t know why Luke called Quirinius governor of Syria, instead of Judea, but I’ll bet he had a meaningful reason.)
With that date analysis behind us, what was Luke really trying to say? In fact, there was something unique and important about Caesar Augustus’ reign: there were no wars. The world (the Roman Empire) was at peace. This fact has never been lost on Christians: the Prince of Peace was born at a time when “the whole world” was at peace, a time seemingly unique in all of human history.
Another point is that due to this census, Joseph and his “fiancée” Mary were required to travel to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem (Heb: house of bread) to fulfill the census’ administrative elements. Then Jesus, the son of David, who would be our Eucharistic bread, was born in the city called “House of Bread” and the ancestral home of King David (cf 1 Sm 17:12).
Verse 7 is full is beautiful information. We start with the phrase “her first-born son.” As we know Mary had no other children, why use this phrase which implies additional sons? First, that implication is part of our modern language; the Jews of Jesus’ time would have understood it as a normal term for both an only son, as well as a first-born son. More importantly, though, is the OT theology of first-born sons. There were paradigmatic of the priesthood, the men consecrated to the Lord to offer sacrifices. They pointed to a deeper theology of the Trinity: God the Son was “born of the Father before all ages,” the supreme first-born/only-born Son of the Father. A first-born son was an icon of God the Son; then they were to image that truth by sacerdotal sacrifice, in anticipation of that same Son of God’s future incarnation, where He would offer the great sacrifice to redeem us.
1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 "Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine." (Ex 13:1-2)
29 "You shall not delay to offer from the fulness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. "The first-born of your sons you shall give to me. (Ex 22:29)
Next, Luke tells us Mary wrapped Jesus in swaddling cloth. This was a strip of cloth that Jewish mothers normally used to wrap their infants. It held the arms and legs in place, so the infant would not move (this is actually a fairly common practice among many traditional cultures, even today). We see here the omnipotent God who created the heavens and the earth allowing Himself to be held constrained, unable to move, unable to do anything. It is a sign of His remarkable humility to allow Himself to be so bound. King Solomon noted that even kings enter the world in swaddling cloth:
1 I also am mortal, like all men, a descendant of the first-formed child of earth; and in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh, 2 within the period of ten months, compacted with blood, from the seed of a man and the pleasure of marriage. 3 And when I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth, and my first sound was a cry, like that of all. 4 I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. 5 For no king has had a different beginning of existence. (Wis 7:1-5)
Luke then tells us something unusual: bound and constrained in the swaddling cloth, Mary laid him in a manger, a feeding trough used to feed livestock. She used it as a crib. Here, in the city called House of Bread, the future Eucharistic Bread is imaged as food for animals. We are the animals who will eat this bread. If there is any context to be gleaned from this imagery it is the incredible humility of God, incarnate as a weak infant, bound and constrained, yet giving Himself to us in an act of complete consumption for no other reason than that we need Him and that He loves us. As I said at the top, I know of no greater beauty than this image of God’s humility and mercy.
The mention of this manger is the reason why we think of this scene within a stable. Where else would one find a manger? Traditionally, this stable was located in a cave, now preserved within the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. But we must also note one more Lucan note: that there was no room in the inn. Our modern minds imagine a hotel so full of guests that they could take no more, causing Joseph and Mary to find a poor stable wherein to take shelter. In fact, the Greek word translated here as inn does not mean an entire inn; it means only one room. The Greek word katalyma means a guestroom. Elsewhere, Luke refers to an actual inn in the parable of the Good Samaritan: there in Lk 10:34, Luke uses the Greek word pandocheion to refer to an inn. But Luke returns to the word katalyma again in Lk 22:11:
8 So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the passover for us, that we may eat it." 9 They said to him, "Where will you have us prepare it?" 10 He said to them, "Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house which he enters, 11 and tell the householder, 'The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I am to eat the passover with my disciples?' 12 And he will show you a large upper room furnished; there make ready." (Lk 22:8-12)
The upper room (cenacle) of the last supper is also a guestroom. Here we see a common theme, connected by a guestroom: Jesus is our Eucharistic bread. At his birth, there was no room in the guestroom, so Jesus gave us an image of the Eucharist; at the last supper, there was room and the image became a reality.