We don’t get to key in on the census on Christmas Eve quite like we do the year before we have our own census. It brings into particular focus what it must have been like. Compare the contrasts between Mary and Joseph’s situation. We wait for a form from the census bureau to mail back, or perhaps a census taker will come knocking. Either way, we’re not really terribly inconvenienced. Mary and Joseph find themselves in a very different picture.
The sense of empire in Jesus’ birth narrative is hard to get past but it is also easily glossed over. With Christmas we have a tendency to skip through the overarching situation that Mary and Joseph are experiencing and jump to the manger. We want our trees and lights up in October and Christmas carols in November. It’s like we eat dessert first and never look back at the Brussels sprouts. It’s not a real surprise that many of us do this. I mean, I like Brussels sprouts (so long as they’re prepared correctly) but all things being equal my first choice is going to be ice cream.
Setting the health impacts aside for today’s conversation, (ever metaphor breaks down at some point right?) if we continually maintain our focus and desire on the ice cream we start to lose an appreciation of just how good it is. You need something to compare it to for a truly accurate experience of the exquisite taste and feel of the ice cream. Like Brussels sprouts. I really like Brussels sprouts that are roasted and nicely caramelized on the outside and tender but crisp on the inside but the mouth feel of a Brussels sprout is never going to compare to the texture of the ice cream just as it begins to melt on your tongue.
So it is with the sense of empire. We jump to mangers and angels and cattle lowing in the night and skip over the Roman empire in which all that takes place. As another example, most of us probably don’t know how cattle low anything but every time we sing the second verse of Away in the Manger, there it is. (It means the cows are mooing, by the way. I looked it up. Lowing just sounds classier, I guess). But the Roman empire in the background is important to appreciating the manger with mooing cattle.
So it is we must give some thought to the prince of peace and savior of the world, none other than the man known in every corner of the world… Caesar Augustus! Oh, you thought I was going to talk about Jesus? He comes later in the story and I promise we’ll get to him. But setting the stage for the manger needs a bit on Caesar. Caesar Augustus was the ruler of the Roman Empire and did do some important things. He ended the constant wars Rome had been involved in and rebuilt Rome with arenas forums and implemented a system of roads across the entire empire. Thus peace and prosperity settle on the land and everyone is happy and Augustus is known as the prince of peace and savior of the world.
Everyone is happy if they’re in a position of power, that is. The common folk and slaves just lived under a terrible tyrant who ruled with an iron fist and killed anyone who dared to resist or dissent from anything under this totalitarian regime. There is only peace because the empire has conquered any challengers and keeps the conquered people under its thumb. Caesar Augustus is no prince of peace or savior of the world. He just gave that appearance to outsiders.
This is the situation Mary and Joseph find themselves in. 1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Why did they need a census? To collect taxes, of course. So that the conquered people could pay for Rome’s arenas, forums and system of roads.
I don’t know why everyone had to go to their hometown but that’s what the story says so that’s what we’re going with. Census forms and door to door census takers hadn’t been invented yet. Whatever the reason, Mary and Joseph have to go to Nazareth. Say what you like, this trip that Mary and Joseph made would not have been particularly comfortable for Mary. It’s about 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem and while I can’t describe this from personal experience, it is my observation and understanding that a woman travelling 90 miles during delivery week wouldn’t be particularly comfortable in an RV with climate control, big screen TVs, a microwave, and your own private bathroom. Never mind the discomfort of 90 miles of walking and riding on a donkey.
So it is that Mary arrives in Nazareth. Surrounded by an empire that crushes any dissent under the heel of an iron boot, Mary is bringing a baby into the world. A baby who will be the true prince of peace and savior of the world. A baby who will eventually go up against the empire that will kill him for his dissent against that empire. A baby who will not let death have the final word and will conquer death in his resurrection.
It’s not the scene we expect. We prefer a light snow falling outside and things all tranquil and calm. Or maybe merry and bright. But into a very different world comes the savior of the world, Jesus the Christ. He will be a man that changes everything.
It’s a very different picture than what Hallmark might suggest but the truth of reality is what gives a thing its power. Movies that depict violence graphically are hard to watch because they SHOULD be hard to watch, rather than some watered down, feel good sequence of scenes that are forgotten in a few days. Instead, with the background of the Roman Empire surrounding the newly born Jesus, we understand and we remember. It is out of this darkness that the light shines. The light of Christ.