The context and content of the Nativity

By Jonathan Tame 09 Dec 2019

With just three days till the General Election on December 12th, whatever the outcome is we do know that many things are about to change: there will be a new parliament and new government, to be followed almost certainly by a new economic relationship with the EU, and new political challenges to the unity of the United Kingdom.

As happens so often in political campaigns, quotes are taken out of their context in order to twist meaning or discredit opponents. It’s a blight on public discourse and undermines the values on which democracy rests. However, careful listening and observing the context provides clarity and meaning and can pre-empt so much misunderstanding. 

The story of the Nativity, which is also high on the agenda this week in primary schools across the land, is usually taken out of context too. Without context, God’s epoch-defining intervention in human history to rescue and transform the world is turned into an anodyne children’s story, the loose plot of harmless Nativity plays.

That wasn’t the intention of the gospel writers though. Consider the context of Luke’s nativity narrative[1], and the introduction found in Luke 1:5-7: “In the time of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named
Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God… But they were childless… and they were both very old.”

Here is a political context – Herod was a tyrant whose reign depended on Roman support; he mistrusted everyone and executed his wife and three of his children. Then there is a religious context – a system based on centralised temple worship and the office of hereditary priests. Lastly, Luke introduces a family context – a couple who lived righteously but nevertheless were childless.

Luke wants us to be aware of the contrasts, challenges and potential for change. He develops this further through the rest of the chapter: Gabriel’s messages to Zechariah and then to Mary about their respective children point towards the spiritual renewal of Israel. To Zechariah, he talks about the joy their son will bring to him and Elizabeth, renewing their family life. And to Mary, Gabriel says that her son will reign on the throne of David, and his kingdom will never end. After nine months of enforced silence, Zechariah too rejoices in the political implications of the salvation which his son John will herald.

Only after the 80 context-setting verses of chapter 1 does Luke tell the story of how Jesus was born in chapter 2. He throws politics, religion and a bit of sex into his introduction, not to grab attention but to
set out the realms of life and society which would be transformed through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Let’s take the opportunity in the lead up to Christmas to integrate what our culture tends to separate. Let’s think about the context of our own society: the weary disillusion around politics, the continued erosion
of Christian belief and values in our culture, and the pain and brokenness in so many family relationships.

Let’s reimagine how the coming of Jesus and the good news of his kingdom can influence our entire culture. May we see with renewed clarity how the gospel brings new life not only to individuals, but, like yeast working through dough, also offers the hope of transformation to family, church, government and all the institutions of society. 

For 2000 years people have underestimated the impact on the world that the birth of a child to a poor family in an insignificant outpost of the Roman empire could have; let’s not make the same mistake today.

[1] I am indebted to my wife Helene for this insight into the context of Luke’s narrative.

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