Sunday, December 25, 2022 | Trey Comstock
One day this week, I was reading Mark 14-16 as my devotional. It’s the story of Christ’s arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. Almost ten years into this preaching gig, I know the major beats of this story super well, have crafted worship services and sermons on it, and thus, spent hours staring at it. Yet, this time, something weird jumped out at me. As Mark introduces Simon of Cyrene, who helps carry the cross for Jesus, he includes an odd detail. “They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.” (Mark 15:21 NRSV) Who are Alexander and Rufus, and what are they doing here? The way that Mark presents them suggests his audience would know these men. It feels like Alexander and Rufus might have been part of the community that Mark writes to, and when they’re father gets mentioned, it personalizes the story for the community reading it. It stops being the far-off tale about far off people and instead becomes the story where your friends’ dad plays an important role. For Mark’s original audience, the story of the death and resurrection of Christ stops being, “Once upon a time” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” It was real history that they had a personal connection with.
Luke does similar work in here in chapter two. Verses 1-5 place the story in the context of a Roman census with suitably Roman sounding names. Luke’s audience most likely would not have known that particular census. He’s a second generation Christian writing to second and third generation Christians, many of whom were Gentiles with no direct connection to Judea or Galilee. However, they would have been Roman citizens or, at least, living under Roman rule and would have had their own Roman census experiences. The Roman Empire loved taxes, and to properly do taxes, you need to count your people. Luke’s audience would have known the upheaval of the Romans needing to count you.
Verses 8-20 roots the story of a savior’s birth in the perspective of working-class men on the late shift. From where I sit as I write this, in 21st century urban southeast Houston, shepherds feel about as far from me as Quirinius Governor of Syria or Mordor from Lord of the Rings. However, Luke’s original audience would have been a lot closer to shepherds. Even the urban dwellers would have been much closer to their food supply and the working people who made it. Angels and pregnant virgins would have felt as fantastical to them as they do to us, but shepherds stuck working late would have been another point of connection, of grounding. It’s another place that makes clear that this story happened to real people – just like them.
Sometimes, we have a harder time connecting with the stories in the Bible because we live in such different times. The daily lives of the people that we read about feel no realer to us than those of myth and fantasy. We have no more connection to Alexander, Rufus, Quirinius, Romans censuses, and ancient shepherds than we do with Frodo, Aslan, Paul Bunyon, and Sherlock Holmes. We face a hurdle to belief that early Christians didn’t. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all want you to know that the story of the incarnation happened as a real historical event. Jesus really came as a real human as God intervening directly and bodily in human history. Their original audiences didn’t need much help with this. They knew Rufus and Alexander. They knew the world first century Roman world. We must work a little harder to comprehend Jesus as a historical reality.
To aid in this, I offer an extended metaphor, an imaginative retelling of the birth of Christ as if it happened in this city, at this moment.
On the eve of another freeze, potentially severe enough to have people worried, oil still needed to be refined, so the late shift at the Chevron planet was still in full swing, despite cold. Suddenly, there appeared an angel of the Lord, there among the condensers and smokestacks. The workers froze mid-task and looked at the sky, terrified. However, the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day just the other side of the bayou, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in a hotel sheet and lying in a laundry basin’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
When the angels had left, they all look at each and said, “Let’s go see this kid that the angel told us about.” So, the workers drop whatever they were doing, rushed out of the plant without even clocking out, and took off in their trucks. When they arrived at the Motel, they found Mary, Joseph, and the baby, lying in the sink of the Motel laundry room because it was the only place that the front desk clerk could think to put them. After they saw this, they drove through the neighborhood telling anyone that would listen about what they had seen and praising God at the top of their lungs.
This isn’t how it happened, but it is something like how the story would have sounded to its original audience – a real story from real life.