In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
So Joseph went up…to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
-Luke 2:1-7 (NIV)
“In those days.” If you’re like most people, those are the words of the Christmas story you tend to skip right over. We’re anxious, aren’t we, to get right to the part about Joseph and Mary and the baby being born in the manger? We have nativity scenes with Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus, but nobody has a little Caesar Augustus figurine issuing a decree. No one has Quirinius, governor of Syria. I mean, I know it’s in the Bible, but, well, I’ll say it: Who cares which census it was that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem? Do we really need to know who was Emperor, or Governor? So maybe Luke was a history buff, but maybe we can be excused for thinking that the historical context he includes in his nativity story isn’t exactly vital to the plot. Whenever it may have happened, we probably tend to think, the point is that it happened. And the exact historical era in which it happened certainly doesn’t, in our minds, affect the significance of the events.
It’s interesting that we think that way, considering how much significance we attach to dates. Especially around this time of year.
Christmas 1998 will always be hugely significant in my family. It was the first year we shared Christmas with our son, Josh. Christmas 1991 was the first one Laura and I spent as husband and wife. We have ornaments on our tree that memorialize those dates, and others as well: one ornament even has a recording of Josh as a three- or four-year-old saying “Merry Christmas.” (Well, it used to, until last year, when Josh accidentally pushed the “record” button and deleted it.) When I hang an ornament that my mom cross-stitched for me in 1980, or one that I remember my late grandmother giving me in 1978, I’m reminded of what I celebrated then, and with whom, and how much things have changed and how much they’ve stayed the same.
I’m also aware that others have “ghosts of Christmases past” that are a little less friendly. Maybe this is the first Christmas without a spouse or parent or child. The first since the divorce, or the diagnosis. Or maybe it isn’t the first, but they haven’t seemed to get much better and the reasons for sadness still seem much more compelling than the reasons for celebration.
And then there are those haunted by the ghosts of Christmas present, celebrating Christmas in a war zone and praying that Christmas won’t include gunfire. There are parents marking the passing of Christmas (not celebrating, mind you) without a daughter, kidnapped by extremists. And what of the parents who are living through Christmas with their children estranged from them? Or men and women trying to smile for the kids through the pain of a failing marriage, wondering if this year’s pictures will be the last with the whole family together? What of those spending Christmas alone at a nursing home, or taking care of a spouse who doesn’t even remember the Christmases spent together?
That’s why, I think, “In those days” actually matters. Jesus came in those days when politicians consolidated power and armies fought wars and girls got pregnant out of wedlock and most people were so busy making a living and coping with their problems that they didn’t even notice his arrival. He didn’t come to neat, clean, shiny people who were lined up all in rows and waiting expectantly and obediently for him. He came to a dirty, noisy, chaotic world full of suffering and violence, victims and victimizers, and tedious, back-breaking drudgery. He came “in those days,” Luke reminds us, because it will not do to forget that “peace on earth” was conspicuously absent until he came. He reminds us because it’s so easy to forget that the pain and struggle and disappointment of our lives is exactly why he came. And where we can still expect to find him.
Do you see? It’s because he came “in those days” that we still dare to hope in him in these days.
In these days -- when politicians consolidate power and armies fight wars and girls get pregnant out of wedlock and most people are so busy making a living and coping with their problems that they don’t even notice his arrival – in these days he comes and offers peace on earth. He doesn’t promise to take away all the struggle and pain. He promises something far better – that what he brings will outlast the worst that life in these days can do to us. Disappointment and sickness and sadness and bitterness and weakness and poverty and ultimately even death will cower and wither and recede in the light of Bethlehem’s Star and his empty tomb. These days, for all their differences, are still a lot like those days. And just as he came then, to offer hope and healing and forgiveness and life, so he comes now. And whether this Christmas you feel much like celebrating or not, at the very least will you take a moment to remember that your life and the lives of those you love most are in his loving care and gentle hands? Will you stop and whisper a prayer of gratitude that even in days like these, still he comes?
In these days, though, it’s hard to remember that, isn’t it? Even at this time of year. Especially at this time of year. We get sucked in, thinking that Christmas is all about getting the house looking just right or finding just the right gifts or cooking just the right food. And then there are those living lonely, empty, painful lives in the middle of all the activity, and they’re overlooked. They have no table loaded with good things to eat, no trees sparkling with lights or ornaments, and for them every night is silent. Either way, we forget that the reason he came was not to string lights or hang mistletoe or put retailers in the black, but that he came to show us that life isn’t supposed to be harsh and empty and barren of love. He came to tell us about a Father who loves us, and who wants to share his life with us. He came to give himself so we would know.
We know that our lives should have meaning and purpose, but we sometimes don’t know what or how. Jesus was born for people exactly like us, people who wish that things were different but don’t know how to make them so. He’s didn’t come as part of a story about a distant time and place, where all is quiet and serene and babies snooze soundly in rustic-looking surroundings. Jesus is here, in “these days” in which we live, even when it’s hard to see his presence. But there he is, in a tear wiped away, a meal shared, a letter written, a thoughtful gift given, a door opened, a sermon preached, a song sung. Go where the people are. Serve those who need to be served. Pray for our world, and love the people around you. I think you’ll see him there.