‘In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus, that a census be taken of all the world. This census, the first, took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judaea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David.’ (Luk 2:1-4)
A census of all the world: this meant, of course, all the world controlled by Rome. To those within its orbit, that seemed to be, and practically was, the whole world. There was no escaping the power of Rome. Jesus’ parents are just two of the many little people forced onto the road, lives and livelihoods disrupted, because Rome chose to flex its muscles a little.
The objective, of course, was financial gain: Rome was registering and counting its people, to tax them. The Empire claimed to be beneficent, and doubtless it did bring great benefits to the world, but in the end it was all about money. The Book of Revelation will foretell the Empire’s epitaph: ‘the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo any more, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls.’ (Rev 18:11-13)
Joseph and Mary are two of the human souls caught up in this vast world-wide prosperity-making machine. It is easy to see the parallels between the world then and the world now, and to know where to look to find the like of Joseph and Mary today.
Although the census was an exercise in power by a regime which sacred history would finally judge an oppressor of God’s people, and disruptive as it was, the effect was to enable its victims to rediscover their true identity, as everyone returned to his own city, to the house and family from which he or his ancestors had come.
To the Jews it must have seemed like a revival of that great characteristic institution of biblical society, the jubilee year, in which every family received back land that had been alienated in the previous fifty years, restoring the original distribution of the promised land among the tribes and families of Israel. The census did not restore anyone’s property, but it was an opportunity to reconnect each family with its heritage.
In our culture, the watchword is, and long has been, progress. The Word of God also calls us always to renewal, towards a new heaven and a new earth, but the watchword is, ‘Return, turn back, repent.’ God’s newness is brought about by a new beginning, that requires of us a constant readiness to go back to our beginning, to let go of our achievements, to start again.
Again and again the tide of human history seems set to make the Gospel irrelevant and unnecessary, or to destroy all its fruit. What happens instead it that God’s calls his people again to come out of the worldy city, out of Babylon, out of Rome, out of whatever the Babylon and Rome of our day is, and return home.
So Joseph returns to the town of David, Bethlehem. Not to Jerusalem, the city where David was the great King of Israel, but to the place where David began, as a humble shepherd. Here the new King, David’s son and Lord, will be born, to be worshipped by shepherds.
Every Christmas we return to Bethlehem, to the crib.
What brings us here? Are we just brought here by the turning of the seasons, in spite of ourselves, helpless and resentful? It might have been so for Joseph and Mary. They might have been just swept along by events, helpless. But that is not the story told us by the Gospel. There the decree of Augustus and all its effects are not the story, they are only the setting for the real story, which is what happens in the hearts of Mary and Joseph. What brings them to Bethlehem is not Caesar Augustus, but the Word of God received in their hearts in love and faith, obedience and freedom.
This Christmas too, as at every Christmas for the last two thousand years, the story is not anything you will read in the papers, nothing that the great powers of this world might do. The story is the stirring of God’s Word in the hearts of all his faithful, drawing them back to Bethlehem, to the crib, to the place where everything begins.