Luke 2:1-2 (NRSV) In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
When we read the Christmas story this Christmas Eve, we may skim over these verses listed above. They talk about such mundane things, and we will gather to hear of the miracle of Christmas, yet if you miss the point of this reference you may miss the real Christmas miracle. Luke wanted to make sure that we had an orderly account of who Jesus was and what he came to do. So he would like us to know the context of his coming. Why at this particular time and and at this place did Jesus come was a point he wanted the reader to understand.
Luke 2:1-2 set the complex context of Jesus coming beautifully without any superfluous words. The early readers would have understood instantly, modern readers may need a little help. The Roman Empire had just unified the whole of the known Mediterranean world under Octavian Augustus Ceasar, who ended a period of change and conflict within Rome that had been raging on and off for for about 200 years. A new imperial order had brought stability. That stability ushered in a period of globalized trade and movement of people and ideas, Basically silver mined in western Spain could end up in India and spices could end up in the other direction and all points in between.
Like globalization today this beta version came with a steep price. Order was maintained by Roman legions and allied troops raised in the conquered territories. These troops were paid for in taxes levied on the occupied population. Those who collected these taxes got their positions by bidding for them. They made a bid to the state, and would basically get to keep for themselves any funds raised above the bidding price. The collector could raise as much as he liked as long as it did not spark a revolt. The system is known as tax farming. It went all the way to the top. Quirinius would do the same, his goal was to fill his pockets with as much loot as he could before his term ended. He could then live the rest of his life in luxury. For the average person in the ancient Mediterranean world, this system was brutal and degrading. The Christmas story begins with a family being pushed around because of a corrupt and oppressive system. The head of this system, Augustus, was being hailed as the world's savior. I often think our manger scenes should include a small desk with tax forms on it to make the point.
This painful and messy point reveals the real Christmas miracle. God chose to come into this world through a quite ordinary family who had to deal with the problems of living in a complex globalized world. The idea of the Incarnation is not that we have to keep Christ in some special fantasy land, but that Jesus the Christ comes into our messy, mixed up and broken world, offering salvation, liberation, and life. Christ enters into the world of Ferguson and Staten Island, Israel and the West Bank, Iraq and Syria, child abuse and divorce, drug addiction and mental illness, unemployment and cancer, Aids and Ebola. In Christ's coming, all who endure or fear these manifestations of sin have the hope of the gift of grace and a pathway to a new life. The way to the Cross and Resurrection leads right through the broken world we actually live in. God sent Jesus the Son to heal the world by his most merciful coming. This gift is for us and for all people, and that is indeed a miracle.
Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas,
PS-You are invited to celebrate with us at Holy Cross this Christmas Eve. Our Living Nativity will start at 3 PM followed with our family worship at 4:30 PM and conclude our Candlelight Communion at 7 PM.