“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” (Luke 2:1).
Thus begins Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus!
The context is crucial for understanding what follows. Rushing too quickly to see the babe in the stable subverts the story’s radical message.
Bound up in those first two sentences of Luke’s nativity is the key to knowing what God is up to in the coming of Jesus.
Make no mistake about it! God is challenging the prevailing values and practices of Caesar and his surrogates! God confronts the mighty Roman Empire, and all subsequent empires, with a vulnerable baby, born of a peasant teenager in a cattle barn in tiny village tucked away in darkness.
Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius are very much alive and active in today’s world. They represent prevailing political and economic power. They have the authority, the might to force populations to do as they say. They are in charge and they intend to maintain their control, their privilege.
So, they issue executive orders that all citizens be “registered,” have proper ID, be legal! Sound familiar?
The registration is part of a new tax policy, designed to protect the economic privilege and advantage of those in power. That sounds strangely and frighteningly familiar in light of the new tax plan enacted into law, clearly enhancing the privileges of the privileged at the expense of the working class and poor.
Both the registration and the tax policy of Augustus and Quirinius strengthen control by the Roman Empire. The day laborers, such as Joseph, and the peasant girls such as Mary, have no power but to acquiesce to the powers that be.
It sounds contemporary in light of political gerrymandering and the wedding of political influence and money which renders common voters powerless.
Mary and Joseph are made homeless, so they take shelter in a barn. There, Mary gives birth without medical attention or a sterile environment. Women often suffer the brunt of abuses of power by the Caesars of every generation.
In Matthew’s telling of the story, mighty Herod is so insecure that he orders all male babies under two slaughtered in order to preserve his power. Baby Jesus becomes an immigrant, fleeing a tyrant’s violence. Children continue to be the major victims of despots’ efforts to secure power!
But the Christmas Story is about redefining power. The world still defines power as the clout of Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. Power is the ability to issue decrees, executive orders, pass legislation, dictate taxation and economic policies. Make no mistake about it! That is a form of power, and the exercise of it is fraught with abuse and accompanying suffering.
There is, however, another form of power. It is more lasting and transformative than political clout and economic privilege.
Authentic power is embodied in that babe in Bethlehem’s manger. It is the power of self-giving Love! Such love comes silently, without fanfare, hidden in simple gestures of compassion and gentleness amid cruelty and callousness.
We can align with the power in Bethlehem’s stable by entering into solidarity with today’s
-homeless seeking shelter from the winter cold,
-vulnerable women and men without medical care,
-immigrants hiding in the shadows while fleeing cruelty of tyrants,
-working poor who care for our children and frail elderly for meager pay.
Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius may steal the headlines. The future, however, belongs to that babe in Bethlehem’s barn! There is real Power. There is God!