Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius, and a Baby in a Barn

“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!











Christmas: A Stark Contrast to Prevailing Values

Believing and living the Christmas stories is dangerous, especially today!  But that is precisely what we are called to do. I have an uneasy feeling that the coming months will test the seriousness with which Christians in America take Christmas.

What does it say to us that God chose to come among us as a vulnerable brown baby, born of an unmarried peasant teenager in a smelly barn in a remote village in the Middle East? What are the implications that the child was born among the homeless, his family having been forced out of their home by the taxation policy of the political powers of the times?

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus spent the first two years of his life as an immigrant in Egypt, fleeing the slaughter of the innocents by a power -obsessed  autocrat.   Among the first people to pay him homage were foreigners. They had a different religion, a different way of knowing.  And, they came “from the East,” the country from which terrorists had attacked.

Regrettably, we have so sentimentalized and domesticated the story of God’s entrance into the world in Jesus of Nazareth that we now have normalized values and actions that blatantly contradict the message of Christmas.  That is a frightening judgment on our failure to faithfully live the Christmas story.

Christmas confronts the Americans with a stark contrast to prevailing values as exposed in the recent elections. Matthew declares that Jesus is “Emmanuel,“ God with us, and his name means “he saves.”  The participants in that first Christmas are timeless vehicles of divine revelation about where God is and through whom God saves.

The parallels to current realities are striking! Prevailing political rhetoric and policies favor the Herods, the rich, the privileged. Immigrants are walled out, denied access to necessities. Foreigners are suspect. Brown and black people are disproportionately victims of injustice. Women are subjects of “locker room talk” and powerful men’s sexual gratification.

If the Christmas stories are true, God is especially present among the very people stigmatized and insulted in the recent political campaign. God is still coming among us in the lowly victims of political power grabs, taxation policies that favor the rich, and practices that exploit the poor.

In the midst of the immigrants fleeing oppression and death is Emmanuel, God with us. Those young women denigrated as sex objects are called “blessed” by the One who comes to save.  And God continues to show up in places we label as “enemy” or “terrorist” territory, where people read a different sacred book.

Although we are surrounded by the darkness of cruelty, hate, violence, and exploitation, we remain hopeful. Christmas also declares that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it!”  Emmanuel is still with us!

We, therefore, can live the Christmas story with courage and hope.  We do so by joining Emmanuel among the homeless, the foreigners, those with different religions, and the exploited so that what is done to them is done to us.  We can challenge the Herods because we know that the baby in Bethlehem’s manger is Emmanuel, the One who saves and prevails over all the world’s despots.