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. All went to their own towns to be registered. 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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 that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
St Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is so very well known. The census, the journey, the inn with no room, the manger, the shepherds and the angels. Surely there is no part of the story that is unfamiliar to us. Perhaps you have a favourite moment in the story. Perhaps you remember playing one of the characters in the story in your primary school nativity play. Perhaps you make the mistake of thinking of this moment in the gospel narrative as nothing more than a beautiful story which adds a touch of warmth to our lives in the depths of winter. However you view Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, I wonder if you see its power and how it prepares us to read of the earthly ministry of the one who was born to bring salvation to the whole of humanity?
Our Christmas reading opens with these words: a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus. Those words are so often glossed over as simple scene-setting but they are, in reality, so much more than that. From the opening of Matthew’s gospel we know the threat posed by the local ruler, Herod. Augustus represented so much more than Herod. Augustus was the first emperor of Rome and ruled the most powerful empire in the world. Furthermore, Augustus knew how powerful he was. He knew that such power could only be held by one with divine ancestry. Augustus knew that he was the son of god. This self-declared divinity placed him and his world in direct opposition to the true Son of God, the baby born in a humble stable, Jesus Christ.
There is nothing kitsch or cute in the story of the Nativity. The true Son of God came into the world as the child of humble parents, and yet his divinity could not be doubted. Angels sang of his birth and the heavens shone with special signs. The divinity of this true Son of God was declared to the world without wealth or force. Between Augustus in Rome and Jesus in Bethlehem there could, and can, be no doubt regarding the authenticity of the divine kingship. On that day of Christ’s birth the new way of true discipleship began.
On this Christmas Day let us put aside the trappings of power and wealth. Let us travel not to royal palaces but to the lowly stable, and let us worship the baby who came to save us all.