‘When Quirinius was governor of Syria’: an almost throw away phrase in St Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is fundamentally important in placing the life of Jesus fairly and squarely in the world at a particular place, at a particular time.
A couple of months ago as you read this, a group of scientists reported that they had managed to analyse the chemical make up of a comet. The scientist being interviewed was excited that the material he had found (light years away) would, under the right conditions, have produced life. I share his excitement. The earth is what it is because that lump of material of which it is made enjoyed just the right conditions for life at the right place at the right time. I am not a scientist, but I wonder whether a parallel might be our own experience in the garden where seeds thrive if they have the right amount of sun and rain etc.
We also know from our own experience that, as individual human beings, we are what we are because we were born in a particular place place at a particular time. We also know that for so many it is the wrong place at the wrong time. The refugee crisis, coincidentally also in Syria, is just one manifestation of this.
We could perhaps say that Jesus was born in the right place and at the right time. That far eastern end of the Mediterranean was where cultures met and so his message could spread. It was a time when human beings were hungry for understanding; he would be listened to.
At about the same time as the news about the comet, I read a discussion comparing Christianity and Islam. I was shocked by the bald assertion by one protagonist that, of course, ‘the Prophet actually lived, but Jesus was made up’.
For me, it could not matter more that Jesus lived and walked the dusty roads of Palestine as an angry young man. I am sure, and have said before, that much that has been written about him might well have been ‘made up’, but I believe that the man, the extraordinary man, is real. A man born in the right place at the right time, ‘when Quirinius was governor of Syria’.
The ‘stuff’ on that comet produced life because just then the conditions were right. Jesus taught us how to deal with that life. He told us that it was not ours to fritter away for our own pleasure. It is to be relished, but can only truly be relished if shared. His teaching is, in a sense, part of the condition for ‘successful’ life. By successful, I mean enduring, sustainable, good life. Like those other conditions for life all those millennia ago, it is a vital ingredient. It is thus more than tragic that a large minority of the human race choose to ignore it to the dreadful detriment of so many.