Updated: Aug 13, 2021
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” For those of us who have been raised in the church, those words are very familiar. We recognize them as the beginning of the Nativity story and feel a sense of comfort and joy, because we know what’s coming: the birth of Jesus. But it’s a strange way to start a delivery story. Think about it. How many of you have been told anecdotes about your own births? – where and when and how you were born, who was there and how long it took. But how many of those tales begin with, “There was a big census that year”?
I never really thought very much about why the nativity narrative starts the way it does, but both Matthew and Luke’s gospels begin in the same way, so it is reasonable to think that it’s important. I suspect that if we have thought about it at all, most of us probably assume that telling us about this world-wide “registration” is a way to set the nativity in a certain time and place. The version from Luke that we just heard is, after all, very specific: someone name Quirinius was governor of Syria, Augustus was Emperor, and “the whole” of the civilized ancient world was to take part in the census. Of course, in reality, the math doesn’t add up. Quirinius was not governor until after Jesus was born. There’s no historical evidence that Augustus Caesar ever ordered a “worldwide” census – and the smaller census that did occur during his reign required people to register where they lived, not where they were born. So, basically, it actually couldn’t have happened in this specific way at all. So why is it in there?
First of all, it may not tell us the exact time and location of Jesus’s birth, but it gives us a really good sense of his birth circumstances. The fact that Joseph and Mary were forced by the government to go to a strange place despite her pregnancy reminds us that they were part of a minority population who lived under the control of an oppressive and hostile regime. They were limited in where they could go and, if they were told to go to a certain place and fill out specific paperwork, they had no choice but to go. Mary, especially, had almost no power over her own life. We know that as a young woman she had been betrothed – more accurately, “sold” – to a much older man. When she confessed that she was pregnant, despite insisting that she had not been with a man, she knew that her life was probably forfeit. Even when Joseph (after being visited by an angel) relented and married her, thus saving her life, she was still completely dependent on his good will – so it must have been pretty bad news when she found out that she would be spending her last trimester making an 80 mile journey by donkey to a place she’d never been and where she knew no one.
We all know “the rest of the story.” They arrived at their destination and were unable to get reasonable lodging, so they were housed instead with farm beasts- not in the cozy, wooden stable with clean straw that we find in Christmas pageants, but in a chilly, dark, hillside cave where first century Palestinians kept their animals. Following the birth, when their first guests arrived, they were not, contrary to some Christmas carols, shiny cherubs and wealthy wise people bearing expensive gifts. Instead, scripture tells us, they were shepherds. These undocumented migrant workers lived from hand to mouth and place to place. They had no formal education. They were none too clean. And yet, these were the people that the angels sent to be the first witnesses to the birth of the Messiah. These were the chosen ones of God.
There is meaning in the circumstances of our Savior’s birth. By telling the story of Jesus’s nativity in the way they do, the gospel writers give us our first inkling of the foundation of Jesus’s entire life; he is not the Messiah of the rich and privileged; he is the one who has been promised to the powerless and marginalized – and he will continue to live among them. The fact that, throughout his life, Jesus talked to those who were considered outcasts, ate among those who were considered “dirty,” and advocated for people that his society shunned, should not surprise anyone who has heard the Christmas story. His birth circumstances heralded not the arrival of an emperor, but of an ordinary human being, a God who was willing to humble herself to reach a creation that needed – and still needs- him so desperately. The nativity story reminds us that we are, as the prophet Isaiah tells us, actively “Sought Out,” holy people, redeemed through no work of our own by the grace of God - and never, ever forsaken.
Jesus was born into the world in the most vulnerable way possible- not only as a fragile, perishable infant, but into a world that is unfair and dangerous and among people that can be self-absorbed and cruel. From the very beginning of his story, we know that he will experience harsh conditions and know what it is to be powerless. The gospel writers tell us this not to make us feel sorry for him, but so that we will know that whatever happens to us, he will understand it and be present in it. The nativity story tells us that Jesus does not have to suffer, but chooses to do so simply to be closer to us.
We have choices to make too. For just as God chose to reach out to this frail creation by sending us a Messiah who knows us not in a removed, distant way, but intimately and empathetically, so too we are asked to humble ourselves to show his way of justice and righteousness to others. Jesus came not because of our good works, but in spite of our lack of them – but when he came he brought the riches of the Holy Spirit and God’s grace with him. It is up to us to share them. May God grant us the strength and humility to be reborn with Jesus into the joy of the Holy Spirit of Christmas. AMEN.