What a contrast! What a mystery! Here is the great Emperor Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man of his age, the ruler of the vast Roman Empire, giving an order and everyone has to obey it. Throughout his empire, everyone has to become registered in the tax registers, so that there will be enough taxes collected to finance his many needs: to finance and expand his military power; to lay down the great network of roads and aqueducts throughout the Roman Empire; and to construct the great palaces and theatres, baths and stadiums.
And here are Joseph and Mary. In comparison, how trivial it seems to anyone who is watching on: this young couple not yet married making the journey from the obscure village of Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in order to do what the Emperor has decreed. As Mary and Joseph obey the imperial command and set out to enroll in the tax registers of Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem they would have been entirely unnoticed, entirely insignificant. Even when they arrived there was no room for them in the local inn. They had to make do with a stable for Mary to give birth.
The Emperor, and the baby. What a contrast! What a mystery! But stop and notice for a second this morning, the truth that is so evident that it need not be said, even though I am going to say it anyway. All over the world, people gather like we do here at Saint Peter’s today. But none of us have gathered to celebrate the Emperor Caesar Augustus. All of us have gathered to celebrate the baby Jesus. It is not the Emperor dressed in the finest robes who is the reason for this season, but rather, the little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. We gather to celebrate not the power of an Emperor, but the birth of an infant in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem. The names of the Roman Emperors, like those of other great men and women of this world, whilst remembered for a time have long passed away from our minds. And yet, all over the world, 2,000 years later, the birth of this child is remembered with joy.
It was Saint Francis of Assisi who was so moved by the mystery of Christmas that he began the custom of depicting the Christmas crib scene. His love for poverty led him to this special appreciation for the wonder of that first Christmas. One of his great followers, Saint Bonaventure, wrote that, “the King of kings and Lord of lords has become the slave and humble servant of men… God, supremely glorious, dwelling in the heights of majesty, has dwelt in a lonely manger.”
This morning we do not gather to honour or to worship a powerful Emperor. We gather to honour and to worship the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, the one announced by the angel as the Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. We worship him who gives meaning to our lives, who offers us eternal life and salvation. In becoming man, he has brought eternity to us and this morning our hope is rekindled and re-awakened.
Be attentive to the manger scene that is conjured up behind your eyes, in your mind and in your soul. For most of the history of the Church such a scene as it is depicted in the sanctuary this morning would have been unknown to Christians. But for us, thanks to Saint Francis and those who followed after him, it is very much alive. Where is the Emperor in that scene, with his soldiers and courtiers? He is nowhere to be found. Try to imagine him in your minds… for most of us that will be difficult, because we have never really given him a moments thought. Now imagine the shepherds, an altogether easier task. These shepherds are no gentleman farmers but rough men and boys, unlettered, uncultured, living out on the hills a tough life, almost outcasts from society.
It is not the religious or civic authorities or the sophisticates of the day, the movers and shakers, who come to visit Jesus first. They do not glorify and praise God for all they have seen. The shepherds do. We know nothing more of the shepherds. The writers of the Gospel of Luke, indeed the writers of all of the Gospels are not interested in tracing their changed lives, and yet they are here in our manger scene, remembered for all time. Here in this moment they stand for the poor, the humble, the down trodden; they can see who Jesus is and worship him, for the very reason that they are not worldly, not weighed down with possessions or status or power. In short, they stand for us, and we remember them.
What a contrast! What a mystery, that we should remember these shepherds but not the most powerful man who lived when they lived; that we should worship not the Emperor, but the baby in the manger. The shepherds stand for all the lowly and the hungry. They stand for all of us who know that we need God. The Gospel writers quote the adult Jesus saying to his disciples, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” It is not the Emperor who is blessed, it is the shepherds who are blessed. That is one of the themes of the Gospel of Luke. We have to come to the Lord in humility, in simplicity; sophistication will not save us, power will not save us, reputation or standing will not save us. But, happily, nor is poverty, lack of wisdom, generally getting things wrong that we wanted to get right a barrier.
What a contrast! What a mystery! Think of the herculean effort that would have been required, the organisational plan that would have been needed to bring everyone together in their home cities and towns and villages for the Emperor’s census to take place. But there is a greater plan at work here. God has prepared all this carefully from the beginning. When he describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as an adult, Saint Luke gives an account of Jesus’s ancestry, starting, “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli” and ends up like this: “son of Adam, son of God.” That’s how far back the plan goes: right back to the beginning. The Gospel writers go through the lineage, down through the list of those who form the unbroken chain between the family of Jesus and God himself. This is not a spur of the moment decision, this is God’s divine plan of salvation, worked out in history despite and over and above any other plan at work in the time.
But that is not the only sign of this divine planning. The choice of Jesus’ Mother is planned: “the angel Gabriel was sent by God” say the Gospel writers, who have already told us about the miraculous birth of Saint John the Baptist who will be the forerunner of our Lord. Now they tell us about Mary, chosen to be the Mother of God. The place of birth is planned: the City of David called Bethlehem because he was of the house and lineage of David, as the Prophets had foretold so long before. God’s plan for the salvation of his people is from the beginning and is worked out “when the time had fully come.” When the time is right for the plan to be fulfilled. When the parents of Jesus come to present their forty day old son in the Temple in Jerusalem, the old man Simeon says, “Master, my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”
This is not elaborate poetry. It is God’s plan, others have plans too, the Emperor and all who are part of his system, but this is God’s plan being worked out in history, and it is this plan that will win the day. What a contrast! What a mystery! At the heart of all of this, the Gospel writers want us to think about what this birth means about God himself. God Almighty who was before time began, who is the ultimate Creator, the Word and the Wisdom, and who ever will be, chooses to be born into flesh, in order that he can share our lives as the most humble of human beings. We must never forget that after Jesus’ birth they are to become refugees without a roof over their heads, driven by fear to a distant land until it is safe for them to return. No palace, no feather bed, no warm fire, no delighted grandparents or great-aunts: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” the Gospel writers would quote the adult Jesus as saying; and a little earlier, saying to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
It is no accident of cosmetics and furnishing that we place the manger scene centrally in our sanctuary, below the window that depicts Jesus hanging on the Cross for the sake of the whole world. Already in this moment of birth, we see looming the shadow of the Cross. What a contrast! What a mystery! What we celebrate this morning, with countless millions around the world is above all this amazing truth: that in the birth of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, almighty God fulfils the plan he formed long ago, he empties and humbles himself, in order to share our life at the depths and to transform it, to offer us and all human beings life in all its fullness.
It is no accident of cosmetics and furnishing that we place the manger scene centrally in our sanctuary, below the altar from which we receive the assurance of God’s presence with us in the gift of Holy Communion. Our loving God comes again amongst us this morning, sharing our life through his Word and through the Blessed Sacrament of his Body and Blood at this altar, so that the gift of life in all its fullness is one that each of us can receive, every one of us here today, renewed and transformed, becoming truly his by his love.
What a contrast! What a mystery! Where is the Emperor? It matters not. Here is Jesus – present for you and for me. Happy Christmas! Let us celebrate the Feast!