Before Christ came lowly into Jerusalem and riding on a donkey, he came lowly into the world, born in the manger of a donkey.
It is Advent now. And nativity scenes display the paradox of Palm 8 on tables and lawns. In that image the cosmos gathers around a baby, where praise and strength are ordained out of the mouth of the infant Christ, where stars shine and angels sing, where men high and low give gifts, and where “all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field” typologically attend the birth of the Lord.
We know God has put all things under Christ’s feet, but each year we are reminded of the fulfillment of this in the Incarnation. In my last post, I discussed the blessing of inspiration and how the New Testament is the fruit of not only inspired writing but also of inspired reading. It is easy to forget that inspiration is necessary for the discernment that reading requires (as the Latin verb legere etymologically implies). In this post, let us consider the discernment of the New Testament authors who recorded a passage we are doubtless familiar with during Advent and Christmas.
In Lessons and Carols, we hear the story of redemption recounted and rehearsed for us in song and narrative. Each reading comes closer towards the climax (or bathos, depending on how one looks at it) of the Incarnation. In the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, we are presented with a historical setting, which in terms of a five-act play, might constitute the exposition that draws us into the central conflict of the drama of Christ’s life. In this particular passage, however, there is a word that we often pass over, which I have made bold below:
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7, NKJV)
Here we encounter the noun “apographé” (ἀπογραφή), which is above translated as “census,” and the verb “apographó” (ἀπογράφω), which is above rendered “registered.” These words are related and taken together appear only six times in the Greek New Testament. Some English versions translate them consistently as either “enrolled” or “enrollment.” The ASV, for instance, reads in this way: “Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled” (Luke 2:1, ASV, italics mine).
To modern ears the words “enroll” or “enrollment” might sound rather odd. But regardless of the diction, there is a reason translators might choose to render this word consistently every time. Knowing what we do about the wisdom of the New Testament authors, these few occurrences are not random; this word occurs in significant places. The root itself is used three more times in Luke and once in Acts to denote this same historical event of the Augustinian census, which according to Josephus comes thirty-seven years after the Battle of Actium.
But knowing the meaning and strategic placement of this word transcends historical accountability.
In the same way that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar transcends Plutarch’s, knowing this word helps the reader understand the philosophical aims and theological claims of the original authors. It helps us understand the deeper political dimensions of the Christ’s birth as well. It reminds us that the kingdom of God was coming before the Triumphal Entry.
This word reminds us that before Christ came lowly into Jerusalem and riding on a donkey, he came lowly into the world and born in the manger of a donkey. The author of Hebrews makes this clear. For the last time we see “apographó” (ἀπογράφω) is in Hebrews 12, where the author makes one of the most significant tropes in all the New Testament:
But ye are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable hosts of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect… (Heb. 12:23)
But this is not simply a bit of classical rhetoric.
The authors of Luke and Hebrews are different, but they are making the same profound point: that there is new and higher citizenship into a heavenly city, a citizenship that cannot be bought with money but has been already bought with the priestly sacrifice of Jesus and was inaugurated at Christ’s birth.
Isaiah was right that the Roman government would be upon his shoulders. But it was also under his feet. Even the verses of Virgil’s eclogue were more like prophecies than poetry, and in the end his lines proved more right than he intended. For this “baby boy” really would “begin” his kingdom, but it would not be the kingdom of Rome. Where Augustus commanded everyone in the antique Roman world to be enrolled into the city of man, the New Testament authors turn this idea toward a higher civilization. By the use of this key word (apographó), we can infer from the Scriptures that all earthly citizens must now be enrolled into what St. Augustine would later call the Civitas Dei.