Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas - Laid in a Manger Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes

Advent is over and Christmas is here! The colors have changed from purple (or blue) to white. The readings for today are as follows:

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Luke 2:1-20 and Titus 2:11-14. This is as they are found in my Ancient Christian Devotional. However, the readings for today, The First Sunday after Christmas, as found in the Revised Common Lectionary are these: 1 Sam. 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Col. 3:12-17 and Luke 2:41-52. I used the ones in the devotional.

As I was reading through Luke I was struck by how much of the passage is so controversial. Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Is Luke accurate in his account of the census? What’s the significance of Jesus being the first born? Why was there no room at the inn? What does the “inn” refer to? Why are the shepherds watching their sheep at night if it was winter? Was it winter? The questions go on and on. I decided to review some of the treatment of the passage in Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah. Many of Brown’s conclusions are more liberal than my own but that doesn’t mean I don't learn from him. I enjoyed the short segment he had on the significance of Jesus being in a manger and in swaddling clothes. Here is part of what he wrote:

“Curiously, Luke seems more interested in telling his audience where Mary laid the newborn baby! He is careful to report that Jesus was swaddled and laid in a manger because of the lack of space at the lodgings. . . Most of the popular reflection on vs. 7, however misses Luke’s purpose. Certainly irrelevant are speculations about why there was no room at the lodgings (influx of people for the census; presence of soldiers who took the census inscriptions; etc), especially when these speculations lead to homilies about the supposed heartlessness of the unmentioned innkeeper and the hardship of the situation for the impoverished parents. As the Lucan account now stands, the manger does not signify poverty but a peculiarity of location caused by circumstances.

Since the manger appears in all three subdivision of Luke 2:1-20 (vss. 7, 12, 16) and Luke himself refers to it as a sign (12), what is its symbolism? [After offering one unlikely possibility Brown suggests a better one.] A better suggestion relates the symbolism of the Lucan manger to God’s complaint in the LXX of Isa 1:3: ‘The ox knows it owner; and the donkey knows the manger [phante] of its lord; but Israel has not known me; my people has not understood me.’ Luke would be proclaiming that the Isaian dictum is repealed. The shepherds have been sent to the manger to find the Lord who is the source of joy for all people of Israel; they go and, finding the baby in the manger, begin to praise God. In other words, God’s people have begun to know the manger of their Lord. . . The swaddling, far from being a sign of poverty, may be a sign that Israel’s Messiah is not an outcast among his people but is properly received and cared for. In Wisdom 7:4-5 Solomon, the wealthiest of Judah’s kings, affirms: ‘I was carefully swaddled and nursed, for no king has any other way to begin.’ Giblin has phrased the total picture well: Jesus is born in the city of David, not in lodgings like an alien, but in a manger where God sustains His people. His swaddling does not belie his royal role.” (pp. 418-420)

David Pao and Eckhard Schnabel in the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament have this observation: "In light of the emphasis on the Davidic dynasty in Luke 1-2, it is tempting to follow J. W. Oiley (1992) in seeing an allusion to 2 Sam. 7:6 LXX, 'I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a lodge [katalyma] and a tent' (cf. 1 Chron. 17:5), in the use of the word katalyma ('inn'). This would fit quite well in 'the city of David' and 'the house and family of David' (Luke 2:4). Nevertheless, this word alone is insufficient to establish this connection, since it also appears in the LXX in various contexts unrelated to the Davidic promises (cf. Exod. 4:24; 15:13; 1 Sam. 1:18; 9:22; Jer 14:8; 40:12 [33:12 MT; Ezek. 23:21)." (p. 266. The reference to Oiley is to Expository Times 103: 300-301, "God on the Move--A Further Look at Kataluma in Luke.")

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