Christmas Eve 2011
Isaiah 9:2-7 Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
The story of the holiest of nights in all of history begins with the mention of royalty and those with great power. 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. Our story of Christmas begins with the mention of the Emperor and the Governor.
Augustus is actually a title, more than a name, given by the Roman Senate in 27 B.C. to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius, founder of the Roman Empire and ruler of the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus’ birth. The title means reverend, and when translated into Greek, it bore implications of divinity, hints of the Messiah. It was claimed by later Roman emperors but when used as a name by itself, it refers to its most famous bearer, the first character mentioned in this birth narrative. Born in 63 B.C., young Gaius met Julius Caesar, his great-uncle by marriage, in 46 B.C. The next year the dictator secretly adopted him in his will and after Caesar’s murder two years later, the young man changed his name from Octavius to one incorporating that of Julius Caesar. Octavian, as he was known prior to gaining the title of Augustus, came to occupy the city of Rome and eventually defeated the combined forces of Antony and Cleopatra, becoming perhaps the most powerful man in history. Popular, determined, fortunate, and long-lived, Augustus left a deep impression on the empire which he founded.
Quirinius was the Roman governor of Syria, previously elected consul of Rome in 12 B.C. Successful in battle, he received due honor. Educated and knowledgeable, he accompanied Gaius Caesar as his tutor. Though not supremely popular, he was nonetheless a powerful political figure of the time.
It is with these two men of power that our story begins. Joseph, we are told, takes his betrothed to be registered in a census, returning to the home of his great ancestor David. There in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to Jesus. It is an unusually quiet sort of birth, this birth of our savior, so quiet that two of the most powerful men on earth, Augustus and Quirinius, are totally unaware of its occurrence. The people in the town of Bethlehem know nothing about it. Just to the north lies the great Jerusalem and the holy temple. No one there notices the birth either, not even the high priests or leading religious figures. The birth of our savior begins as a very quiet secret.
Integral to the meaning of the story is the choice God makes in the revealing of this secret. The very first to whom the birth will be revealed is a small group of shepherds. Not kings, emperors, or governors in the great cities, not priests, rabbis, scribes or religious leaders in the great temple, but shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Not the highest of the high but the lowest of the low. Not the proud but the humble. Not those who have servants but those who serve. Not those surrounded by great crowds of followers but those who are alone in the quiet of the night.
In the lives of the people of Israel, God has worked in such public ways to this point. In the burning bush, pillars of fire and smoke, the parting of the Red Sea, God has made himself known. Yet now he comes as a human infant, not a symbol of great power but one of such smallness and vulnerability. Raised up, rescued, and established in the promised land by the loud and public acts of the mighty God, the people of Israel have come to crave only the loud and public acts of God. They have wandered and misunderstood. They have associated the choice of God in them as reward and blessing of their own selfish desires. They have gone from aligning themselves with the will of God to the aligning of God with their own will. The great power of God has for them become camouflaged by their worship of worldly things. They seek security and comfort, they do not seek the Lord. And now the Lord comes in a new way to bring a new yet eternal word for them. Do not seek great power and hope to find me therein; seek simply my presence and I will lead you.
The birth of our savior is a secret but perhaps the greatest truth available to us in Christmas is not that the Lord withheld himself that night, for he gave himself in this birth more fully than ever before. No, the truth is that so very few were ready to receive this giving of the Lord. The birth of Jesus is not God hiding from the world. The birth of Jesus is more a matter of the world simply looking elsewhere. The kings and emperors and governors did not see the birth because they were so busy looking for ways to continue their own regimes. The priests and scribes and rabbis did not see the birth because they were so busy looking to maintain control of their way of life. The people going to be enrolled did not see the birth because their allegiance to the state was higher than their allegiance to the Lord. The merchants in the city did not see the birth because they were so busy making a living off the new influx of customers. Only the shepherds see the secret and perhaps that is because they were not so busy looking elsewhere. Alone in the quiet of the night, they have made a place where the secret may be known.
Where are you looking and what can you learn this Christmas? Is your life so busy and full, like that of the emperor and governor, that the Lord’s presence is a secret to you? When I look ultimately for wealth, power, security, comfort, control, the Lord’s gifts are always secrets to me; I cannot see them or understand them at all. When I look for human relationships to fill me with love and nurture and affirmation, the gifts of God are secret and hidden from me. When I use God only to ask for what I think I want and need, there simply is no place for him to bring me what I truly want and need. All too often we do not seek the Lord; we seek only to get the Lord to do what we ask. We seek to be full and ask the Lord to fill us. He replies, Empty yourself so that there is space for me to come. We seek understanding and plead with the Lord to bring it. He replies, Accept what is and trust me for all meaning.
St. John of the Cross, the great mystic of the 16th century, writes: In order to experience pleasure in all,/Desire to have pleasure in nothing. In order to arrive at possessing all,/Desire to possess nothing. In order to arrive at being all,/Desire to be nothing. In order to arrive at knowing all,/Desire to know nothing. Jesus says, Become as a child to enter the kingdom. It is the shepherds in this story who are empty enough to receive. The rest of the characters are simply too full.
Unless we worship the Lord above worldly things, his great love is born in secret all around us. As we let go of the desire to fill ourselves and place ourselves in his midst, he fills us and gives us life. Probably we recognize wealth and material goods as worldly things which may gain our focus at the expense of making room for the love of the Lord. But probably we forget that even our marriages and our children, security and happiness, integrity and morality, understanding and knowledge, can be worldly things that gain all of our attention. And when our focus is primarily on any worldly thing, the love of God is born in secret all around us. Perhaps the biggest challenge to the Christian is to let go of what we want to happen in a given situation and to allow God to bring us what we need. What I want to have happen is a worldly desire and as long as that is my focus God’s will is a secret to me.
Perhaps you have noticed that sometimes the very things you have asked not to happen have not only happened but have been places where you have learned the most about grace and love. While we clamor to know why the Lord would allow such a horrible thing to occur in our lives, the Lord is birthing his love even there, yet our focus must be on God and not just the answer to our questions. We must not let our understanding, our happiness, our selfish desires for ourselves become more important than the Lord. In the midst of our fears in life, still we can choose to have faith. We can practice trusting.
Accept each thing in your life, maybe even especially the more difficult things, as places where the love of God will be born in you. If you are trying to be the emperor of life, that birth will be a secret. Be instead a simple shepherd and look to the Lord. Seek to be quiet and empty in the presence of the Lord. His love will then be born in you and you will grow in ways you cannot even imagine.
Unto us is born this night a Savior who is Christ the Lord.