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“Advent: a hospitable birth in a hard economy”

It is easy to miss Luke’s emphasis when we light Advent candles; clothe our children in bathrobes and paper crowns so they can retell the story; or on Christmas Eve, lifting our candles in the air as we sing “Silent Night”. But for those with ears to hear, the gospel writer is not subtle.

“The Flight to Egypt” by Sliman Mansour
“The Flight to Egypt” by Sliman Mansour

Luke 2:1-7

July 16, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Empires are not shy. They never have been. It’s not in their nature.


One scholar paints that reality in concrete terms:


“Via coins, monuments, inscriptions, proclamations, and temples dedicated to emperors, Roman propaganda in the 1st century declared that the most powerful gods had chosen the Romans to rule the world and bring it peace. The Caesars would never have attained such power without these gods’ favor, they proclaimed. [So] Rome’s use of force when necessary and their “peace by conquest” were ordained. This propaganda sought to persuade subject peoples that their best interests lay in cooperating with Rome as the path to favor from the gods, even as Roman rule brought them suffering.”[ii]


But Luke tells a different story. It does not ignore harsh economic realities. In fact, it highlights them as it tells of a baby born far from home to two peasant parents who have been forced to travel by royal decree, all so Rome can squeeze people like them for more taxes. And yet, he says, the God who once humbled the Pharaoh is at work the midst of it all!

 

It is easy to miss Luke’s emphasis when we light Advent candles; clothe our children in bathrobes and paper crowns so they can retell the story; or on Christmas Eve, lifting our candles in the air as we sing “Silent Night”. But for those with ears to hear, the gospel writer is not subtle.


As Kelley Nikondeha writes, “Luke sets the advent scene with an unmistakable economic marker – the census. Caesar’s census was not about demographic numbers; it was a count of livestock, crops, and people who could pay taxes. It was an inventory of wealth that allowed the empire to further spread the burden of taxation. A census was always bad news for the poor.”[iii]


Professor Eric Barretto elaborates,


“A census is a crucial step in taxation. In the ancient world, taxes were profoundly oppressive, especially in an economic system brimming with individuals living on the edge of subsistence. In a world full of people living with very little to spare, the insatiable appetites of Roman military might and power cost ordinary people a great deal. Roman peace came at a high cost.”[iv]


Mary and Joseph know this. They have to travel 90 miles “from Nazareth to the root system of [Joseph’s] family tree.”[v] That’s at least a week of walking – maybe more since she is “great with child” – a week when he is not making any money, a week when food and shelter on the road will cost more if they have to buy either, a week of sore feet and aching backs, of dangerous river crossings and bandits and wild animals!


But Caesar says they must go, and any resistance is treated as rebellion, so they obeyed!

 

Let’s think a moment about what that would look like for us today.


If you had to travel to your ancestral town to register what would that involve?


I’d have to go to Saxtons River, Vermont, where my grandparents lived.


Google tells me that is 754 miles. About 12 hours by car. Maybe longer with all the flooding they are dealing with. Certainly longer if I had to take public transportation or walk!


I am able to take vacation (and still get paid) thanks to your generosity. But what if my hourly work at the Y was all I had? I could still go, but I’d be giving up a paycheck for a long time!


I could fly (for $343 one way, mid-week, booking a couple weeks out), but I’d have to rent a car ($61 per day) to get there from the airport. That’s more than a week’s pay at the Y.


Amtrak would require switching trains in DC and spending the night at Union Station, but I could get to Bellows Falls for $224 and walk a couple hours to Saxtons River.


Greyhound would take 28 hours and four transfers and still would only get me as close as Bennington. It would take me another 4 days to walk the rest of the way.


And then there’s food. I’ve carried a week’s worth of food on my back, but that’s about all I can shoulder. If the trip took longer, I’d need to resupply. When you’re hiking, usually that means a Dollar Store or a small-town grocery. Not the best selection or prices! It might mean a 7-11 or a vending machine. Even worse!


Can you imagine how expensive the trip was for Mary and Joseph?

 

Luke doesn’t bother with the details of their travel. Eventually they got there.


But in the popular version, their problems were just beginning – the place was full up!


We talked this past Christmas Eve about how the phrase “no room in the inn” really meant no space for them in the guest room. There would have been other places to get out of the weather.


Nikondeha asserts, “They found long-lost family members awaiting them and they squeezed in where they could.” Stressing the importance of hospitality in Palestine, she writes “Hospitality is how people honor the humanity of one another on the underside of the empire.”[vi]


So when her water broke, Mary would have found herself surrounded by mothers and midwives, by young girls ready to bring hot water and freshly laundered cloth to swaddle the baby, and men of all ages prepared to shoo the curious animals to the other side of the courtyard.


“In that moment,” Nikondeha writes, “no one thought of Caesar or the registration or the coming tax increase. A new life had entered the world.”[vii]

 

Many of you remember what that amazing moment is like – holding a new life in your arms!


Isaac Villegas certainly does. He writes of volunteering at a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. A woman arrived from Guatemala. She was ‘great with child” too! She needed shoes. They giggled as they sorted through stilettos and platform shoes donated by wealthy, well-meaning people in LA who couldn’t imagine having to walk through the desert. They finally found a pair of Nikes that would fit.


Later a long-term volunteer stopped by with a great idea! Villegas writes:


“She’d decided that the shelter should throw a baby shower for the soon-to-be mom. So I stayed late that evening, sorting through boxes of clothes, picking out the cutest onesies and newborn outfits and pondering how the world has come to be the way it is, where the best option some people have for survival is to leave their ancestral land, their family and community, and risk everything at the border.”[viii]


The next day, with cake and party supplies, they threw the grandest shower the shelter had ever seen. The priest pulled out his guitar to sing a lively rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and strangers offered gifts to a woman they’d never met before “as she prepared to welcome a child in the shadow of a society that couldn’t care less about her life or her child’s.”


The shower did not fix a broken immigration system. It did not end the violence in her native Guatemala. It did not guarantee her safe passage or a job with a living wage. In fact, Villegas says all they could offer was their broken hallelujahs. Somehow it was enough.

 

This is the world into which Jesus was born!


A world of powerful empires and oppressed people.


A world where taxes burden those on the bottom more than those on the top.


A world of refugees and travelers forced onto the roads by one government or another.


But since this is an Advent story, it is also a world into which God has stepped. It may not look that way, but God has. That’s why Luke tells this story.


Centuries before, while Saul was still on the throne, David was anointed king. Nothing changed immediately, but God was at work. About 85 AD, Luke tells a story to a people who have seen Rome crush a rebellion and destroy the Temple to show they are as strong as ever. He tells them of another Anointed One. He tells them that the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, is another sign that God is at work.


Don’t give up hope! Don’t stop showing hospitality! God is changing the world! Amen


[i] “The Flight to Egypt” by Sliman Mansour
[ii] From Mitzi Minor’s reflections on the text for workingpreacher.org, 12/24/22
[iii] From The First Advent in Palestine, page 80
[iv] From “The ‘Real’ War on Christmas?” by Eric Barretto, 12/23/11
[v] From The First Advent in Palestine, page 80
[vi] Ibid, page 83 and 77
[vii] Ibid, page 85
[viii] Here and throughout this section, from “A shower in the desert” in the Christian Century, 12/14/22
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