The Christmas Gospel from Luke provides us with many teachings. One thing that surely stands out, however, is the permeating theme of humility. Throughout the account, God confounds our prideful expectations and insists on being found in the lowest of places.
The newborn Christ is not found where we expect Him to be nor does His birth conform to any script we would design. Right from the start, He gives us many lessons in humility and begins His saving work of healing our wound of pride. Let’s look at these lessons in four stages.
I. The Procession to the Place – In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So, all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
There is a sort of “cast of thousands” that leads Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to be in Bethlehem. The distant Caesar Augustus sends out a decree affecting millions. He wants a census taken in order to update his tax rolls. He also likely wants to measure his power and may have military deployments and a draft in mind. Soon enough, dozens of governors deploy thousands of troops to enforce the edict. Even in the small town of Nazareth, a town of barely 300 people, Roman troops enforce the decree. Mary is nine months pregnant, but there will be no exceptions.
For many of us, this offends our sense of what should justly happen. Jesus, who is Lord and Savior, should be born in comfort; Mary should be surrounded by loving family and in the care of midwives.
The first lesson in humility is our surprise and even indignation at the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.
God, however, is neither surprised nor stymied. All this fits into His plan to get Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and all of us to the place of blessing. Whatever evil the Emperor intends, God intends it for good (see Genesis 50:20). The Messiah, it was prophesied, would be called a Nazarene (Matt 2:23), be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and die in Jerusalem (Lk 13:33). God is setting things in place for the blessing.
And here is the second lesson in humility: Your life is not just about you. You and I are part of something far larger. Just as millions were set on the move at the birth of Christ, so you and I are part of the larger plan and providence of God involving billions of people now living, countless others who have lived, and still others who will live in the future. God sees the bigger picture, yet not one detail is lost to Him. Humility! God has more in mind than our comfort and personal agendas. We are part of something bigger as well.
The third lesson in humility is that God must get us to certain places in order to bless us. And they may be strange places, ones we would not choose. Getting us there may involve hardship for us: disappointment that our own plans have not come through, and the painful loss of places, things, and people we love. Yes, God has blessings waiting for us in strange places, involving circumstances we never imagined.
For Joseph and Mary, the procession to the place called Bethlehem involved hardship. But this procession is necessary for them and for us. Bethlehem was where the blessing would be found—there and no other place. And the same is true for us in so many ways.
God has been good to me and blessed me in ways and in places I never expected or planned. God must get us to certain places in order to bless us. I am and have been blessed; I am a witness.
Don’t miss the procession to the place that opens this Gospel. It is a paradigm for our lives. Where is your Bethlehem? Where does God need to get you in order to unlock your blessings? Are you humble and teachable enough to go there?
Remain humble and don’t quickly despair when the surprises and vicissitudes of life emerge. God may be up to something. He can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines.
II. The Paradox of His Poverty – While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Don’t miss the poverty that is manifest here—it is a chosen poverty. St. John Chrysostom said,
Surely if [the Lord] had so willed it, He might have come moving the heavens, making the earth to shake, and shooting forth His thunderbolts; but such was not the way of His going forth; His desire was not to destroy, but to save… And, to trample upon human pride from its very birth, therefore He is not only man, but a poor man, and has chosen a poor mother, who had not even a cradle where she might lay her new born Child; as it follows, and she laid him in the manger (Quoted in the Catena Aurea – Lection 2 ad Luc 2:6).
The paradox of poverty is the fourth lesson in humility! We who are worldly think that poverty is the worst thing, but it is not—pride is the worst thing. And thus the Lord teaches us from the start that greatness and blessings are not found merely in what is high, mighty, pleasant, or pleasing. Blessings are often found in unusual ways and under unexpected circumstances.
The greatest blessing ever bestowed is not found in a palace, or in Bloomindales, or on beachfront property; He is not even found in a cheap Bethlehem inn. He is found in a lowly manger underneath an inn. It is poor and smelly and He rests in a feeding trough. But there He is, in the least expected place, the lowest imaginable circumstances. In this way He confounds our pride and our values.
Are we humble enough to admit this and to stop being so resentful and crestfallen when things don’t measure up exactly to our standards?
He chooses this poverty. Whatever its unpleasant realities, poverty brings a sort of freedom if it is embraced. The poor have less to lose and thus the world has less of a hold on them. What does a poor man have to lose by leaving everything and following Jesus? Wealth has many spiritual risks. It is hard for the rich to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth is too easily distracting and enslaving. And even knowing all this, we still want it. In choosing poverty, Jesus confounds our pride, greed, lust, and gluttony.
The Lord does not just confound us; He also chooses this to bless us. St. Paul said,
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor 8:9).
He also said,
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5).
Bede, the 7th century Church Father, wrote,
He who sits at His Father’s right hand, finds no room in an inn, that He might prepare for us in His Father’s house many mansions; He is born not in His Father’s house, but [under] an inn and by the way side, because through the mystery of the incarnation He was made the way [for us back to our Father’s House] [Catena, Ibidem].
Thank you, Jesus, for the paradoxical perfection of your poverty. Through it you confound our human ways and bless us more richly than we could ever expect! Thank for this lesson in humility.
III. Proclamation to the People – Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
The fifth lesson in humility throws into question our overemphasis on politics and worldly power. This section of the nativity narrative serves to strongly remind us that our salvation is not to be found in the statehouse, the courthouse, or the White House. We are not to put our trust in princes. Our salvation is in Jesus, only in Jesus. Are we humble enough to admit this and stop exalting worldly power?
Note that in this Gospel, lots of “emperor words” are used to describe this newborn infant, Jesus. Yet here He is in a lowly manger!
Emperors had heralds that preceded their arrival and summoned their subjects. The infant Jesus has the angel of the Lord to announce Him. Later, this heralding angel will be joined by a “host” of angels. The Emperor Augustus has his Legions, but Jesus has His myriad angels.
The angel also uses words appropriate for an emperor. He says, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” This is how the declarations of emperors began. The Greek text makes this even clearer: the angel uses the word εὐαγγελίζομαι (evaggelizomai), which means “I evangelize you,” “I announce good or life changing news.” This word for “evangelize” was associated especially with an edict or announcement from the Emperor. But what the emperors questionably claimed for their edicts is really true with Jesus!
The emperors also claimed the titles “savior” and “lord.” The angel calls Jesus Savior (σωτὴρ – Soter) and Lord (κύριος – Kyrios), and He alone deserves these titles.
Here is the irony that we must humbly accept: this true Lord and Savior, this God of Armies with plenary authority, is not in some palace drinking from goblets and being fanned by slaves. He is lying in a lowly feed box, attended to by animals.
It is a divine comedy. One can almost imagine the shepherds wrinkling their noses or scratching their heads as they hear this great announcement of a King, Savior, Lord and Messiah, and then hearing that He is to be found in a stable, lying in a feeding trough. Perhaps one shepherd said to the other, “Did that angel say ‘manger’?” And another replying, “Yup, a feeding trough.”
It’s a bit anticlimactic! But thank the Lord, they humbly accept the procession that they must now make to the place of true blessing. It is an unexpected place to be sure, but that is where He is to be found. He is King and Lord to be sure, but He is humble and comes to serve and to save. He will wash the feet of the worst sinners and die for the love of them.
IV. Praise that is Perfect – And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Note the praises of the angels! Who or what could ever match them? They are a multitude. They are perfected in their glory and acclaim God’s praises more gloriously than any human choir could ever hope to do.
Yet even here there is a humility to consider. For the Lord has taken a human nature to Himself, not an angelic one. In the order of creation, angels are far higher and more noble than we are. Their mere appearance overwhelms us and strikes fear in us. Yet to none of these did God ever say, “You are my Son. This day I have begotten you” (See Hebrews 1:5).
God humbly takes up our human nature and bestows on us an astonishing dignity that comes only from Him. It is due to His choice, not our merits. And though the angels can surely praise the Lord in far more glorious way than we, they cannot say, “One of us is God.”
And glorious though the angel’s praise is, there is a perfect praise that only we can give to God. It was beautifully expressed by the poet Christina Rossetti:
Angels and Archangels may have gathered there.
Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air.
But only his mother in her maiden bliss
could worship the beloved with a kiss.
And thus, our final lesson in humility is to accept that it is our lowliness which the Lord embraced. We have no glory to give that is even close to what the Lord deserves, but a simple kiss will do, a simple act of love. It is our lowly and sinful hearts that the Lord seeks, so as to heal and exalt them. Our palaces, honors, and titles are of no interest or value to Him. It is our humility that pleases Him most, and He desires to meet us there.