In his opening lines for the Gospel at
Christmas midnight Mass (Luke 2:1-14), Luke sets Jesus' birth in the context
of the Roman Empire.
"In those days," the evangelist tells
us, "a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should
be enrolled. This is the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of
Not only does this imperial census succeed in
getting Joseph and Mary to leave Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem for Jesus'
birth, but it also ties our Christian faith into the "secular
history" taking place around it.
No Christian author accomplishes this goal
better than Luke. Both in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, he
never lets his readers forget the historical context in which we're expected
to live our faith.
By scrupulously doing that, Luke places himself
and his message squarely in the ancient tradition of Jewish prophets. These
"consciences of Israel" never treat "hypothetical"
situations, nor are they interested in predicting far distant events.
Their oracles make sense only against the
background of the "here and now" in which they're involved. The
problem is that the collections of their sayings we find in the Hebrew
Scriptures rarely give us the details of their "here and now,"
making it easy for later readers to apply their words to almost any
situation or person they wish.
The first reading (Isaiah 9:1-6) provides us
with a classic example of such prophetic misunderstanding. When we hear the
oft-repeated words, "A child is born to us, a son is given to us,"
we automatically think the prophet is taking his audience eight centuries
into the future and telling them about Jesus' birth.
The concept and words fit perfectly into our
Christian ideas about Jesus: "His dominion is vast and forever
Although Jesus fits snugly into our
interpretation of the newborn child, those who study Isaiah are convinced
the prophet is actually speaking about King Ahaz's son, Hezekiah.
At this point, Isaiah isn't looking into the
distant future and predicting Jesus' arrival. He's simply expressing his
hope that the birth of a new prince will bring about the peace for which the
prophet's people are longing.
But because Isaiah's followers who collected
these oracles didn't place his words expressly into the historical context
in which he originally uttered them, it became easy for readers hearing them
centuries later to put them into their own historical context.
No matter how we treat Isaiah's oracle, we must
never forget what the author of the letter to Titus says (Titus 2:11-14):
"The grace of God has appeared." This unexpected but welcome
interruption of our everyday affairs changes the way we approach those
The presence of the risen Jesus in our lives
trains "us to reject godless ways and worldly desires, and to live
temperately, justly and devoutly in this age."
In each generation, followers of God must live
their faith in their unique day and age. As one Scripture professor
frequently reminded me, "A good homilist has the Bible in one hand and
the daily newspaper in the other. Where those two meet, there's your
If we hear our liturgical readings on Christmas
and don't apply them to our personal historical context, we're missing the
lesson the three authors presumed we would find in their writings.
We surface God in our lives only when we have
the courage to look carefully at our lives.