In chapter 3 of Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, Luther uses the nativity to situate Christ in relation to the world’s powers. His basic premise is that the timing of Christ’s birth was neither irrelevant, nor happenstance. The nativity can only be rightly conceived within the political and social milieu of the time.
Luther notes that Christ’s birth coincided with Emperor Augustus’ decree that all people in the empire should return to their hometown to register for tax purposes. So Jesus was not born in peacetime, however peaceful it was, but into a nation under the yoke of the Roman Empire.
But unlike the relationship of my birth to the affairs of the state at the time of my birth back in 1979, the birth of Christ, Luther argues, is in direct relationship with the political powers of the time. He claims that, “At the very first moment of his life, Christ and his parents had to give evidence of his obedience, not to God, but to the heathen emperor, the enemy of the Jews.” At this point in the story, the cosmic significance of the baby does not shine through, especially since Christ is born during an act of servitude to the emperor by his parents. The birth of Jesus, one might say, occurs while bowing the knee.
The nativity is also situated within a particular social dynamic, which can be seen in the events that occur on Joseph and Mary’s arrival at Bethlehem. Luther reflects: “How unobtrusively and simply do those events take place on earth that are so heralded in heaven!” While the women who carried Rome’s future rulers were pampered in the lap of luxury, “the mother of God, on foot in midwinter trudged her weight across the fields. How unequal it all was!” Luther was appalled at the inhumanity of those who would not create space for a pregnant woman when she arrived at Bethlehem. It was this inhumanity that lead them to a cow shed “to there bring forth the Maker of all creatures.”
Luther observes that the inhumanity of those who filled the inns bespeaks the darkness that had befallen Bethlehem. “Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem!” is a cry of one who is indignant. The darkness is for us to be clearly seen. The “cutthroats lounged like lords in the inn,” and so “did not recognize what God was doing in the stable.” The carousers were full of booze and grub, yet “God left them empty, and this comfort and treasure was hidden from them. Oh, what a dark night it was in Bethlehem that this light should not have been seen.” It was a long and dark walk from Nazareth, and it was a long and dark night in the cowshed.
In the nativity, Luther observes two worlds that have no regard for God’s world. The emperor’s rule hovered like a ghost over Christ’s birth. The mob ruled over Christ’s birth with indifference. Luther takes his reader by the hand to show how Joseph, Mary, and “the Maker of all creatures” ended up firstly in Bethlehem, and then out the back in a cowshed. Much like the unknowing collusion of the mob and the state at Christ’s death, we see here, the unknowing collusion of the state and the mob at Christ’s birth: “Thus shows God that he has no regard for what the world is and has and does. And the world shows that it does not know or consider what God is and has and does."
The emperor and the mob did not realise they were ushering the baby to “the first throne of this king” —the manger. It was not the final seat from which he would rule.
Luther cannot hide his nervous twitch. What is so terrifying about this king on his throne? Don’t be mistaken, Luther is not finding cause to love God because God is a baby in a manger—who doesn’t gush over a baby? On the contrary, Luther’s grasping for this king is grounded in the orthodox claim that lies at the heart of the nativity: “That is why Christ took on our humanity, save for sin, that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favour he should console and confirm.” Here lies the “Maker of all creatures” as one of us, who came to us, for us.