Jesus’ birth was a deeply subversive affair in at least a few ways. Last time, we looked at how Luke and the angels subvert Roman authority and emperor cult, but the Incarnation was also deeply subversive to Jewish hopes and expectations, particularly for national hopes of rebellion.
This subversion of expectations and hopes comes from two areas, both found in Luke 2. The first is the historical context of a census and the second comes from the angelic statement of peace.
We know that Jesus is born in Bethlehem to fulfil prophecy, but the reason that Jesus was in Bethlehem to be born is probably even more important to Luke’s narrative as that prophetic fulfilment:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town (Luke 2.1–3).
“But how can a census be as important as fulfilled prophesy!?” you might ask. That’s a good question. First off, we should note that (unlike in Matthew!), Luke does not emphasize the Bethlehem connection. But he does emphasize the census and he does this not just by mentioning it, but by subverting the expectations that come along with it.
Now, we may read “census” and not think too much of it. Or, if you do, it’s probably to get all caught up in the historical discussions revolving around the date (after all, the discussion about how exactly you get Luke’s narrative, Herod’s death, and Quirinius’ census to line up tends to suck up all of the oxygen in the room). But, for Luke, it’s not the date of the Census that is so important, but the context.
Under Augustus, provincial censuses like the one we read about in Luke were organized by the central government for the first time. For provincial areas which were more rural than urban, like Judea or Gaul, this meant additional government interference in your normal life and tended to proceed additional taxation. Taxes have never been popular. In fact, taxes in the Roman Empire and the censuses which introduced them were so unpopular that censuses were frequently the cause of revolts in the further provinces. There were Gallic Revolts which were kicked off by taxes in 27 and 12 BC as well as in AD 14 and 61.
And, although we may not know it, there was one kicked off in Judea by Quirinius’ census in AD 6 as well.
Josephus tells us,
Under the administration [of Coponius and Quirinius], a certain Galilean whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt and said that they were cowards if they would pay taxes to the Romans and would, after God, submit to their mortal men as their lords. (Wars, 2.117–18; cf. Ant. 18.1–10 for a fuller account).
And while we might not be aware of either Josephus’ account or Judas’ rebellion, Luke was; he specifically mentions it in Acts “After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him” (Acts 5.37).
But it’s not just Luke that was aware of Judas’ revolt or the expectation that censes would lead to rebellions. Not was Luke the only one who knew that “Messiah” and “Rebellion against Rome” were frequently tied together in the context of 1st century Judea. If the Messiah was to bring about a kingdom, that kingdom must overthrow Roman power. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that, as Josephus also tells us, as Jewish men declared themselves to be Messianic figures, they tied such claims to rebellion against Rome.
And, at first, this seems to be what we get with Jesus’ birth (and later life as well). An army of angels attends Jesus birth (Luke 2.13) and we’ve already been reminded that he’s a son of David (Luke 2.4). Later, as he becomes more famous and the Messianic hope intensifies, he goes into Jerusalem and people lay their cloaks down before him and spread palm branches at him and talk about how the blessing of the kingdom of David is coming, they mean war and rebellion (Luke 19.28–40; cf. Mark 11.8–10).
And yet, at every moment, Jesus subverts these hopes for an earthly Jewish kingdom. Although he, like the Maccabees, has palm fronds waved at him (2 Mac 10.1–7; Luke 19.28–40), and although he, like the Maccabees, would cleanse the temple in an act of Channukah-like defiance (1 Mac 4.36–61; 2 Mac 10.1–10; Luke 19.45–48), he does not follow in the Maccabean modus of rebellion and even his temple cleansing subverts the expectations of violence. And, as you read further in Luke, you realize that the reason that—less than a week after laying out their robes for Jesus’ triumphal entry—the Jerusalemites reject Jesus and send him to death and call out “give us Barabbas!” is because they recognized that Jesus would not fight against the Romans and that Barabbas would, for he was an insurrectionist (Luke 23.18–24).
But what we see at the end of Luke and what we see in the Cross, we see prefigured in the Cradle. When a census is enacted by a wicked empire, an army of angels comes to the king in a manger and proclaims “Peace on earth,” a hope that is lost when Jesus is rejected, and a hope that is itself subverted at the Triumphal Entry, where we hear proclaimed “Peace in Heaven” (Luke 19.38 = Psa 118.26). No more will there be peace on earth (Luke 19.41–44) because they have rejected the Prince of Peace and sent their king to a Cross. The Cross is prefigured in the Cradle.
Too often, at least in my tradition, our rejection of Christmas as a religious holiday tends to lead to a rejection for the appreciation for and close reading of, the Incarnation itself. But if you read Luke (as well as the other Gospels, but I know Luke best), you will find in the Incarnation the same story that you will find elsewhere. That here in the manger, surrounded by Angels, we find Cradle, Crown, and Cross.