Part of our Christmas story is a tale of two kings: one powerful in the eyes of the world, and the other identifying with the lowliest of people. It is the latter who is the true King, and this reminds us that we serve a God who is not impressed with power or status, but who dwells close to the lowly (Ps 34:18; Is 57:15). If we want to find God’s presence, we too will likelier find Him among the lowly.
This passage opens with a decree of Augustus Caesar, who displays his power here by censuses used to collect taxes for Rome and its empire (Lk 2:1). Augustus had achieved power by brutally crushing his competition, and he maintained power through absolute political control. Emperors fed Rome with free grain levied as taxes on Egyptian farmers—whose children sometimes starved. His was an empire maintained by force and propaganda, utterly different from the unpretentious kingdom that Christ came to bring.
All the important people would feel honored to be in Caesar’s presence; by contrast, Christ was born to a betrothed village couple from Judea’s “frontier” of Galilee, forced to migrate to Bethlehem for Caesar’s census. In contrast to Caesar, Christ was not born in what people of status would have viewed as a “respectable” family.
For readers in the Roman Empire, the narrative here is full of similar contrasts. Augustus lived in a palace; Christ was born in a feeding trough meant for animals. Choirs in Augustus’ temples hailed him as a god, lord and a “savior” for the empire; an angelic voice hailed Jesus as “born this day a savior,” “Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:11). The empire celebrated Augustus’ birthday; heaven celebrated Christ’s.
Imperial propaganda announced and celebrated the “Pax Romana,” the “peace” that Augustus established (i.e., imposed) for the empire by subduing (i.e., conquering) many of its enemies (i.e., neighbors). By contrast, at Jesus’ birth heaven announced God’s offer of true peace to humanity (Lk 2:14).
Virtually everyone in the empire knew of the emperor. Yet God chose to reveal Jesus’ identity to shepherds, who were outcasts to most of ancient Mediterranean society. Who would heed shepherds? Yet they faithfully proclaimed what they had experienced to anyone who would listen (Lk 2:18). Some ancient laws rejected the testimony of shepherds and women; yet Luke’s Gospel opens and closes with such testimony, approved by God.
If Augustus had a son now, he would be born in a palace and clothed with expensive garments (cf. Lk 7:25). But some time after Mary and Joseph reached Bethlehem, Mary gave birth and laid Jesus in a manger in a cave, apparently because the house was too crowded. (Contrary to most translations, there was no “inn” involved; if anyone excluded them from the house at all, it was apparently not an innkeeper, but relatives!) Mary wrapped Jesus with “swaddling cloths” (wrappings meant to help a baby’s limbs grow straight), not royal robes.
At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of God in flesh, the incomparably great one sharing our broken humanity and ultimately our mortality. When God came among us, he came not among the great and mighty. He was not impressed with the pretension of human power, as if the prestige of powerful human empires mattered anything to him. Instead, he came among the broken, among the lowly, and showed us that we do not need to pretend to be anything great; he welcomes us by his own generosity. Like the shepherds, let us recognize the love of our king who cares for each of us, and tell everyone about him.