In his opening lines for the Gospel at Christmas midnight Mass (Luke 2:1-14), Luke sets Jesus' birth in the context of the Roman Empire.

"In those days," the evangelist tells us, "a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This is the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria."

Not only does this imperial census succeed in getting Joseph and Mary to leave Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem for Jesus' birth, but it also ties our Christian faith into the "secular history" taking place around it.


No Christian author accomplishes this goal better than Luke. Both in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, he never lets his readers forget the historical context in which we're expected to live our faith.

By scrupulously doing that, Luke places himself and his message squarely in the ancient tradition of Jewish prophets. These "consciences of Israel" never treat "hypothetical" situations, nor are they interested in predicting far distant events.

Their oracles make sense only against the background of the "here and now" in which they're involved. The problem is that the collections of their sayings we find in the Hebrew Scriptures rarely give us the details of their "here and now," making it easy for later readers to apply their words to almost any situation or person they wish.

The first reading (Isaiah 9:1-6) provides us with a classic example of such prophetic misunderstanding. When we hear the oft-repeated words, "A child is born to us, a son is given to us," we automatically think the prophet is taking his audience eight centuries into the future and telling them about Jesus' birth.

The concept and words fit perfectly into our Christian ideas about Jesus: "His dominion is vast and forever peaceful."

Although Jesus fits snugly into our interpretation of the newborn child, those who study Isaiah are convinced the prophet is actually speaking about King Ahaz's son, Hezekiah.

At this point, Isaiah isn't looking into the distant future and predicting Jesus' arrival. He's simply expressing his hope that the birth of a new prince will bring about the peace for which the prophet's people are longing.

But because Isaiah's followers who collected these oracles didn't place his words expressly into the historical context in which he originally uttered them, it became easy for readers hearing them centuries later to put them into their own historical context.

Everything changes

No matter how we treat Isaiah's oracle, we must never forget what the author of the letter to Titus says (Titus 2:11-14): "The grace of God has appeared." This unexpected but welcome interruption of our everyday affairs changes the way we approach those affairs.

The presence of the risen Jesus in our lives trains "us to reject godless ways and worldly desires, and to live temperately, justly and devoutly in this age."

In each generation, followers of God must live their faith in their unique day and age. As one Scripture professor frequently reminded me, "A good homilist has the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. Where those two meet, there's your homily."

If we hear our liturgical readings on Christmas and don't apply them to our personal historical context, we're missing the lesson the three authors presumed we would find in their writings.

We surface God in our lives only when we have the courage to look carefully at our lives.