At the end of Luke’s Gospel we have an account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the City of David: he comes riding on a donkey, and as he rides along, people spread out cloaks across the road and cry out, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:28ff) On the other side of Jerusalem coming up from the coast would have been the Governor, the Emperor’s representative, travelling in solemn procession flanked by bannered troops, a display of the power that can enforce the Emperor’s will, while the people look on in silence at the hatred occupier. He would come up to Jerusalem each year for the Feast of Passover, when large crowds would gather, to impose a ‘peace’ on what was potentially a rebellious mob. This scene ends with the two being brought together, where the Governor confronts Jesus with the question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Luke 23:3) and who then executes him for insurrection, the fate of all who stand in opposition to the august Emperor. (Luke 23:38) This is the culmination of a story that began at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel.

This night we heard the beginning of this story. It began with: ‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.’ (Luke 2:1) In those days Jews were exempt military service, so the purpose of this would have been for the imposition of taxation. The decrees of the Emperor were powerful; they could compel even a pregnant couple to go on an arduous journey to comply. This decree is contrasted with the angelic announcement from on high to shepherds, outside in the open countryside as they took turns keeping watch over their flocks during the night. (Luke 2:8) This proclamation began: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10) An ancient inscription hailed Caesar Augustus as a god whose birthday signalled the beginning of good news for the world. The angel continues: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11) In this Gospel the angel applies to Jesus all the titles that Caesar gave to himself: ‘Son of God,’ ‘Saviour,’ and ‘bringer of peace, hope and good news.’ Thus, St Luke sets up an alternative to the Emperor cult, and, especially in applying the title of ‘Saviour’ to Jesus, he lays down a direct challenge, which will have its ultimate showdown in that other city of David, Jerusalem.

The angel goes on to speak of a sign: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12) In this way, the proclamation is not just words, but is given a particular form, a combination of word and sign which St John in his Gospel has as: ‘The Word became flesh.’ (John 1:14) St Luke, however, is a bit sceptical of signs. For later, when they would have a sign from Jesus, he replies to the crowds, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 2:12) — Jonah being one who preached repentance, as Jesus himself did; how often do we ignore preachers calling on us to repent? So, the sign given here by the angel is likewise a bit dubious: newborns are common enough, but a newborn in a manger is a bit primitive, if not a bit brutish. If it were not for the angelic announcement, it would be a sign that we could easily overlook or mistake for something else: Who would imagine that this humble person in such a lowly place would be Immanuel, God-with-us? Similarly, at the end of this story, in the showdown with the Emperor, the sign we are given is of a humble, powerless man in the hands of another who will ultimately nail him to a cross. (c.f.: John 18:36)

The challenge held up to us here on this night is one that pits great power against lowliness (c.f.: John 19:12): With whom are we going to throw in our lot? Later, this Jesus who is born for us this day, will say to us: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27) The outcome of our choice will see us either endeavouring to make our authority felt (Matthew 20:25), or see us seeking to be of service to one another — much along the lines outlined by St Benedict in his Chapter on Good Zeal: “Let them strive to be the first to honour one another. They should bear each other’s weaknesses of both body and character with the utmost patience. They must compete with one another in obedience. No one should pursue what he judges advantageous to himself, but rather what benefits others.” (Rule of St Benedict 72:4-7) This lowly way of living together promises greater happiness, greater joy for all, than living amongst those who are always seeking to force their will on all around them, which is but the way of much domestic violence and all other forms of violence. (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 72:1) So Jesus says to us: “It shall not be so among you.” At the other end of his life, the Resurrection is the sign he leaves with us (c.f.: Luke 24:2-4) that says no matter how much power we can command, God’s Will will ultimately prevail: Better to throw in our lot with God, than with even the likes of all-powerful Emperors, and even if it should cost us all we have.

On this night of our Saviour’s birth, on behalf of the community I wish all the great joy of the good news that this night proclaims.

By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO