On Christmas Eve in the year 1223, St. Francis of Assisi marked the feast of Christ’s birth with a crib scene or creche, inaugurating a beloved custom that continues to this day, in churches and in public displays around the world. This scene has also shaped our art and storytelling, and reflects the icon that commemorates the feast of the Nativity in the Orthodox Church.
The setting is far too familiar to require describing here. We often behold it with tender feelings, and think of the Holy Family shut out from the inn, and, the infant Jesus laid in a manger, a feeding trough for cattle, instead of a crib.
We do Luke’s account a disservice, however, if we reduce it merely to this. For the Third Evangelist, the Nativity of Christ is also a tale of power. Indeed, it marks nothing less than the beginning of a great reversal of our very expectations about the nature of human and divine dominion.
Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord God issued this complaint.
The ox knows its owner
And the donkey its master’s crib;
But Israel does not know,
My people do not consider.” (Isaiah 1:3)
Our icon, however, shows not only the ox and the donkey, but the angels and the shepherds gathered around the manger. Isaiah’s proclamation is repealed!
Why is the Holy Family in Bethlehem in the first place? Because a census has been decreed by the Emperor Augustus, the very symbol of earthly power. He restored ‘peace on earth’ by ending a bloody civil war. An inscription in Asia Minor went so far as to call him ‘the savior of the whole world.’
Meanwhile, in the greatest historical irony of all time, Luke tells us that, in the face of imperial propaganda, the true savior and prince of peace was born in a remote corner of the Roman realm. When we read another inscription dedicated to Augustus, we do so with our eyes spiritually open, beholding someone else: ‘The birthday of the god has marked the beginning of the good news for the world.’
The imperial census brought Joseph to his ancestral city of David so that the promised son of David, the Messiah, could be born. With Joseph, Mary and Jesus, Luke informs us that the enrollment of all God’s peoples has also begun – not in the empire of Augustus, but in the Kingdom of God. As St. Paul writes:
Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phiippians. 3:20)