We want always to remember and commemorate our holidays like Christians. We must never attempt to recover the “meaning of Christmas” through some Reader’s Digest approach to inspirational stories. The meaning of Christmas is not found in a rejection of rank commercialism, but is rather the meaning of the whole Bible—sin, promise, redemption, faith and glory. “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered . . .” (Luke 2:1-20).
We come to a very familiar story—set against an unfamiliar backdrop. Caesar Augustus was an emperor who did not know he was in the hand of God. The prophet had said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). And so God turned the wheels of the entire world to bring Joseph and Mary to the right place (v. 1). The governor Quirinius was governor of Syria twice. The birth of the Lord was associated with his first term. Herod the Great died in 4 BC, and so we know Christ was born before that time (vv. 2-3).
Joseph and Mary were poor. We know this from the circumstances of Christ’s birth, and from the fact that they offered up turtledoves (Luke 2:24). God had promised everlasting rule to the line of David, but just look where that line had come (vv. 4-5). Christ was born in the city of David, but was born in an impoverished household.
Jesus was the firstborn son. The expression here in Luke indicates that Mary had other children later (v. 7), and there is no reason to doubt that those named by Matthew were truly His half-brothers, children of Joseph and Mary (Matt. 13:55).
There is the famous detail that there was no room in the inn, but the narrative never mentions a stable. It simply says there was no room in the inn, and that Christ was laid in a manger (which could even have been outside). Justin Martyr in the second century says that Christ was born in a cave. Constantine the Great had a church built over a cave at Bethlehem, refurbished later by Justinian, which may in fact mark the actual place. Of course, it might not — but it was in that town somewhere.
God does not honor in the same way men honor. He seeks out the lowly. Recall that the first two groups to hear the glorious message of the realized gospel were dirty shepherds at work, and distinguished Gentile astrologers from afar. First, the shepherds. These flocks were probably connected to the sacrifices in Jerusalem. The shepherds were part of a despised class (not even allowed to testify in court cases). This was because they were thought to have sloppy views on the important difference between mine and thine. But in this, the honorable Jews had become like the Egyptians of Joseph’s day, who disdained Jacob and his shepherd household.
At any rate, an angel appeared to the shepherds. The angel came, and glory with him, and the shepherds were greatly afraid (v. 9). The angel declared the gospel, the advent of a Savior for all people. This is a message of great joy. And how will you know which one? There will be only one baby in Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. Then a host of angels appeared an sang the doxology. Glory and peace are sung by the heavenly host, the heavenly army, and yes, the text doesn’t explicitly say they sang. But when you look at the words, it is impossible to conceive of the message being delivered any other way. At that, the heavenly host receded—the angels resumed their place in the heavens. The Greek verb indicates they remained in sight the entire time they were receding (v. 15). And so the shepherds go to find out—the shepherds made haste, and found just what the angel had said (v. 16). They become the first human proclaimers of Christ (v. 17), and then return to their tasks (v. 20). And Mary remembered it all—the source that Luke used for this story is probably none other than Mary herself (v. 19).
Consider the glory of it all. “Glory in the highest” is sung to dirty and despised men in a field—glory in the highest comes down to the lowest. Glory given to God in the highest is glory given (in another sense) to men in the lowest. In the Incarnation, God condescends to stoop. In the grip of pride, we rarely understand what happened that night. The highest reached down to the lowest. The glory goes to God—we do not give glory to God in the highest because we think that something else is “the highest.” But when we come to understand the truth, we sing as the angels did. So great joy comes to men—when the order is right, and glory is given to God, then great joy can be found among men, and no other way.