The God who works in the mundane
Since we are still in Christmas Season (until Jan 6), I thought I'd write something regarding Christmas.
Do you ever “name drop”? Ever mention people you think are important to someone in order to impress them? Of course, we don’t always mention a person’s name to impress them. Sometimes we mention famous people to set the context. “When George W. Bush was President, the Twin Towers were attacked.” “When Nolan Ryan was pitching for the Houston Astros, I visited my first game.” Big names set the stage sometimes. They give us context. They evoke images of power or fear, prestige or failure.
Luke mentions several big names in this text. And it’s crucial for us to know why these three names are mentioned. He could have mentioned any person in the ancient world, but Luke mentioned these three on purpose: Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, and David. All three are political authority figures.
On the one hand, Luke mentions Caesar Augustus because he cares about facts. He’s already told us that he’s intending on writing an “orderly account” or “careful record of events” in 1:3. So, on one level he’s just recording the facts: Augustus was the Roman Caesar that year. On the other hand, Luke is establishing that Jesus’s birth is situated in a grand scheme. For Luke’s audience, mentioning the Caesar evokes Roman power and control. It makes the birth of Jesus seem inconsequential and small. It makes the context of Jesus’s birth mundane.
Moving from broad to particular (2:2-3), Luke mentions a local governor of Syria, Quirinius. Every fourteen years a census was taken and a tax was collected. Though we have no other historical data for this census, we know a similar census was done in Egypt. It also required people to return to their hometowns to be enrolled.on writing an “orderly account” or “careful record of events” in 1:3. So, on one level he’s just recording the facts: Augustus was the Roman Caesar that year. On the other hand, Luke is establishing that Jesus’s birth is situated in a grand scheme. For Luke’s audience, mentioning the Caesar evokes Roman power and control. It makes the birth of Jesus seem inconsequential and small. It makes the context of Jesus’s birth mundane.
Then Luke mentions the town of Bethlehem’s claim-to-fame: Kind David was from there. If you’re a Jew, this is good news. Since Joseph was blood related to King David, it meant that there was “royalty in his blood.” For those Jews who believed in a coming Messiah, this meant that it makes perfect sense for Jesus to be royalty.
Finally, like a funnel, Luke reaches the tiny, nuclear family of Joseph and his betrothed, Mary (2:4-5). And before we reflect on the situation of Jesus’s birth, let me say a quick word about ancient, Jewish marriage.
For several centuries, people married at young ages. The assumption was that women could bear more children, or at least, be able to have children, the younger and healthier they were. Losing babies and even their mothers during childbirth was a fairly common occurrence. Jewish boys were encouraged to marry young in order to continue one’s lineage and to ward off sexual passion. The average Jewish male was between eighteen to twenty years old. The average Jewish female married in their teenage years, like their Greco-Roman neighbors, not long after puberty (i.e., thirteen to sixteen). (In fact, marrying very young continued late into the medieval ages.)
Jewish marriages were essentially in two stages: the betrothal (called the kiddushin or erusin) and the consummation ceremony (called the nisuin). Typically, the time between these two stages was one year.
For the average Jew, who wasn’t rich, neither stage was overtly extravagant. In some cases, a man would approach a girl’s family and tell of his interest. In most cases, one father would approach another father and discuss a possible connection between the teenage daughter and the older man. They would agree upon the terms of the arrangement. Money was almost always part of the exchange. The amount of money a Roman father gave the other family was in relation to how attractive the woman was; Jewish fathers gave amounts in relation to whether or not the woman was a virgin and attractive. Of course for all people groups, the social status had much to do with it: rich people gave huge gifts, poor people gave much less. The money exchanged from the father-in-law to the wife’s family was called the mohar (or “dowry,” the “price of the bride”). Mohar was not a legal requirement, but a social convention.
The couple would compose a marriage contract (called the ketubah) which detailed the obligations of both husband and wife. It covered things such as the inheritance upon his death, how children were to be taken care of, the wife’s obligations to the husband, and how the wife would be financially provided for in the event of a divorce (which is why some people compare this to a prenuptial agreement). In modern Jewish homes, this ketubah is often in calligraphy and framed in the home.
During the time of Jesus, couples in Egypt worked out contracts directly with each other. However, Romans and Palestinian Jews typically arranged marriages through brokers or agents. These agents helped work out all of the legal and financial details of the marriage.
Once the ketubah was agreed upon, the couple would be engaged or betrothed (kiddushin). This was legally binding. If a man died during this period, the woman would become a widow. Dissolving kiddushin was only possible through the legal process of divorce.
This is where Joseph and Mary come in to the scene. We don’t know for certain, but Joseph was probably in his early twenties; Mary was probably a teenager. If their marriage process was like most Palestinian Jews, their parents had already consulted a marriage broker, worked out financial details, and had signed a ketubah. This is all assumed in one simple word in 2:5, “betrothed.” Or, as they would have called it, kiddushin. They would have been waiting for the final consummation of their marriage, where they would finally be able to begin having children. Of course, at this point in the narrative, we’re aware that she’s already pregnant with Jesus.
The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about a week or two, depending on the traveling conditions. We have every reason to believe that Mary was not in a hurry or in the final stages of the third trimester. Instead, “while she was there, the days of her pregnancy were filled” (2:6). There’s no rush, no hurry, no panic. The dramatic Hollywood scenes are all fiction.
Instead, Mary would have stayed with Joseph’s family (don’t forget that’s the reason they came to Bethlehem in the first place). And because of the census, there would have been several other family members at the same house (notice how 2:18 assumes this: “all who heard it”).
The bottom line: they ran out of rooms. This is the precise meaning of the Greek word in 2:7: “because there was no place for them in the place/lodging/room.” For some reason, probably because of the overarching influence of the King James Version, this verse is continually translated as “there was no place for them in the inn.” But, “inn” is certainly not a proper translation. If Luke wanted to speak of a hotel or inn, he would have used the Greek word for that (as he does in 10:34). Instead, Luke just means that the rooms where people slept were full. We know that houses in this time and place were what we would call, “tiny.”
But where was Jesus born? Since Jesus was placed in a feeding trough for animals (though no animals are mentioned in any narrative), it is assumed that Jesus was born in a place where an animal ate. We have two probable options: (1) Many homes in this period and place were two stories. People slept upstairs (or on the roof), and the animals slept below them. Mary could have given birth in this bottom level of the house, or in something like a small courtyard. (2) Joseph’s family could have owned a small cave that acted like a stable. It seems to me that option #1 is the most likely. So much for entire pageants, skits, and songs denigrating an inn and inn keeper that never existed!
Instead of Hollywood, what we have here is a mundane, humble story of a young Jewish couple bearing a child in a small, Bethlehemite house (or cave), surrounded by relatives. No fanfare, not grand announcements, and no dignitaries visiting (the “wise men” in Matthew are not kings).
In the context of relative world peace and power (evoked by the characters, Caesar and Quirinius) a small baby is being born in an inconsequential village. In one of the greatest “upsets” in human history, this mundane setting and non-famous parents are witnessing the birth of “the Son of the Most High God,” who “will reign over the house of Jacob forever. . . and whose kingdom shall have no end” (1:32-33; RSV). Jesus is the ultimate "political" figure in history.
Extraordinary events among ordinary people. If you and I had witnessed this birth for ourselves, we would have thought nothing of it. Everything looked normal. And to some degree, they’re right. Jesus was born normally, ate normally, and certainly cried normally. But in reality, for those who knew what was going on, it was an event that would change the course of human history.
So it is with you and me. From the outside, the world can look at our lives and assume normalcy. And to some degree, they’re right. But in reality, God is orchestrating events that demonstrate that God “has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy” (1:54). God’s promises to Israel have been fulfilled in Jesus. And because of the resurrection, the fulfillment of God’s promises are still taking place in you and me. Of course things look normal on the outside (unless miracles take place!). But as Christians, we know of the great work the Spirit does. We know of the real comfort and real peace that can come.
What routine in your life is mundane? In what area of your life or in what relationship do you feel normal? Have you given up on seeing God work in the mundane? Are you so discouraged that you no longer expect God to do incredible things in the normal routines of life?
Christmas Season reminds us that there is no such thing as too humble or too mundane for the work of God.