The past couple of weeks Arianne and I have been engaged in some belated spring cleaning. Sifting through our file cabinet was by far the least enjoyable task, but it did turn up some stuff I was proud to have written or kept as well as some stuff I was relieved to finally discard in the recycle bin. I know it’s July, but this Christmas Eve meditation I gave on Luke 2:1-7 a couple of years back struck me for its brevity and simplicity. Since I’m writing a sermon this week and next on texts which don’t necessarily lead to either quality, I’m posting this for inspiration.
2:1 In 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. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In this short space of seven verses, like a good filmmaker, Luke draws attention to the stark contrast between two different scenes.
In the first scene, we have the Emperor Augustus, the richest and most powerful person in the ancient world—issuing a decree from the throne of his elegant courts in Rome, the sprawling capital of the Roman Empire. We are to imagine the Emperor dramatically signing the decree for his census, flanked by a bevy of his yes-men who are as eager as he is to collect the tax or expand the military, which is why a census is given in the first place. This is a scene of great consequence, or so it seems.
In the second scene, we have the concrete instance of Mary and Joseph doing what everyone in the Roman Empire had to do as a result of the census: traveling to their own town to be registered. Luke depicts this scene so rapidly and with such sparse detail that it is easy for us to miss how harsh it really is. Mary and Joseph start up in Nazareth of Galilee. The seventy-mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been uneven, dodgy and strenuous. It would have taken at least five days. On top of it all, Mary is forty weeks pregnant. Let me repeat: forty weeks pregnant. Even though she may have had a donkey to sit on, it would have been a dreadfully long and painful ride.
What’s more, the engaged couple is enduring the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy. In the culture of first-century Judaism, having a child out of wedlock was a gigantic no-no, a disgraceful blunder that would shame everyone associated with them, especially if the woman had gotten pregnant by another man. In Mary’s case, allegedly, the Holy Spirit had just come down and miraculously impregnated her. I think it goes without saying how unconvicing that story would have been to most people.
In any case, Joseph and Mary, beleaguered by the long journey, finally arrive in the backwater town of Bethlehem. But, much to their chagrin because now Mary’s contractions have started, there is no room for them at the local inn. The only place available is a tiny, smelly manger on the outskirts of town, which, they determined, would have to do. Not a few hours later, Mary, who had been screaming from labor pains, gives birth to Jesus, who comes wailing into the world to announce his new birth. This second scene is a scene of humiliation and little consequence, or so it seems.
In these two scenes, Luke juxtaposes the Emperor Augustus to the baby Jesus. The one is fantastically rich and powerful, the leader of the entire Roman world. The other is born into scandal, crying, helpless and poor.
But, as we know, things are far, far from what they seem. The scene of great and cosmic and unprecedented consequence is happening, not in the elegant courts in Rome, but in a lowly manger on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Little does the Emperor know what he has set in motion by issuing this census. Little does he know that this baby Jesus would not just be tallied and taxed in Bethlehem, but would be the one to redeem all of humanity, to usher in the reign of God, to call us all to follow him, to teach us love of neighbor and enemy and to reveal to us at last the God who is totally and irreversibly for us.
As followers of Jesus, we have always been people of the second scene, people of the long and tired journey, people called to the little, inconspicuous work of love and justice and peace that so often seems to be on the losing side. As people of the second scene, we are called to carry on the work of the Christ in our relationships, in our homes, in our places of work and everywhere we find ourselves. But the only reason we have a shot at actually doing it is because Christ came, Christ came for you, for me, and for all of humanity, not because we deserved it, but because that’s the way God is. In a world of first and second scenes, Christ came. To the weak and the strong, Christ came. To the poor and the rich, Christ came. To the humble and the haughty, Christ came.
This Advent, and every Advent, Christ comes to us, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. Christ comes, calling us again to costly discipleship. Christ comes, eager to transform us and suffer with us. Christ comes, arms open wide to embrace all that we are with his love that never ends. Amen.