There is a wonderful irony about today’s Gospel reading. Luke wants to ground his Gospel in concrete historic events and so mentions the census decreed by the Emperor Augustus to give us a sense of when Jesus’ birth took place. However, this little historical detail we hear year after year contains a huge irony.
In his arrogance the Emperor decide to count up the people who lived in his Empire – no doubt so he could tax them more efficiently. Everyone had to be counted; everyone had to register. Augustus got the whole world on the move – or at least the bit of the world that mattered for him.
Yet on the margins of Augustus’ world things moved in ways that would undermine the whole Imperial system that Augustus worked so hard to secure. Two people from Nazareth travel to Bethlehem to register for the census. The woman is pregnant and about to give birth. The Bible talks about the “city of David” yet Bethlehem at this time was little more than a village. It was hardly an important place. Mary has to give birth in a stable in a place that wasn’t important. Augustus in his imperial palace decreed the Roman world had to be counted yet Jesus – the one through whom the world was made – becomes incarnate on the edge, laid to rest in a feeding trough for animals.
The concerns of those in power at the centre of things are far removed from God’s own concerns with the poor and the outcast. The concerns of Augustus were about his power and prestige, the peace of the Empire – a peace that was enforced by ruthless brutality. He was concerned with his own status and, after his death, was considered to be divine. Yet true divinity slipped into the world, announced by angels to poor shepherds, laid to rest in a stable and soon to be driven into exile.
The peace that Augustus wanted was based on force, might and domination. The peace that Jesus brings is altogether different. It is about justice and righteousness, healing and wholeness. This peace is the active presence of God with us.
In a world where peace is still not achieved, where the people of Bethlehem live in the shadow of a separation wall, where people are being killed for their faith, their politics, their gender or how they love we turn to the new-born prince of peace and seek to model our lives on his example.
Augustus in his arrogance thought he had brought peace to the world; yet his rule didn’t last and his legacy is in ruins. God’s peace – announced by the angels to the shepherds is that peace and justice have come to stay but are proclaimed to the poor and disposed first. There is good news for unmarried mothers and shepherds. It is Good News, as Jesus will later announce at Nazareth Synagogue, to the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. Or, as he will have need to remind John the Baptist, to the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead and the poor. While it is Good News to those on the margins, it remains Bad News for those who have put them there!
Jesus comes at Christmas not just to warm hearts but to transform the living conditions of the world. As those who follow him; this is our work too – at Christmas and throughout the year.