When Caesar Augustus put forth the order to do a census of the world for tax purposes (as mentioned by St. Luke, chapter 2 in the Gospel lesson we read at our Christmas services), he put into motion a series of events which ultimately caused Joseph the inconvenience of having to take his pregnant wife, Mary, to Bethlehem. This of course was of no interest or concern to His Imperial Majesty who as a god of Rome was cognizant only of those things pertaining to himself – a very limited and narrow view for any claiming the title of god. The Roman Emperors in those days often were thought of as being a god, and certainly his imperial commands could move an entire empire and all those living in its realm – the entire “civilized” world as the Romans saw things. King Herod of the Jews although being more pretentious than real as a king, since his “kingdom” was a tiny “backwater” and an insignificant part of the Roman Empire, also moved the denizens of his “kingdom” at his whim, and could order their deaths with fear of repercussion as we hear in the Nativity story with the deaths of the holy innocent baby boys. Though Emperor and king each saw themselves as the shakers and movers of their respective domains, St. Luke views both Herod and Caesar as petty players in a much bigger drama that was unfolding in the universe. Because Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus were invisible to king and emperor as the holy but impoverished family was insignificant to their imperial interests, so too the two imperial claimants were totally unaware of the one truly significant event that was happening in their own lifetimes and within their kingly precincts. In a sense neither Herod nor Caesar were concerned with the minor events occurring within their realms (another birth to one of the endless impoverished Palestinian girls, impregnated by an unknown father), nor with the major events that were happening in the cosmos (the Word of God becoming incarnate for the salvation of the world). Both the small events and the great events were beyond their imperial interests, as they only things of significance to the kings were things involved themselves! King and emperor though “governing” large realms of territory had narrowed their field of interest to their respective selves.
Shepherds on the other hand, knowing themselves not to be of any great significance to the world, pay attention to what happens in the world beyond their limited self, and certainly are open to witnessing anything of interest that might be happening in the cosmos. So they see the angels announcing the birth of the messiah as they do believe the universe is greater than their insignificant selves and they expect great things to happen outside of themselves and to involve people other than themselves. So they gladly go to Bethlehem to see the birth of this Messiah heralded to them by God’s own messengers. They could be awed in a way that the great men of the world cannot at the birth into poverty of a baby with uncertain paternity lying in a manger. How this child could possibly be or even grow up to be anyone of consequence was, I am sure, dubious to even the shepherds, for this wasn’t the United States of America after all with its promise that any citizen could potentially become president.
Also entering into the narrative are the strangers from Persia following a star which tells them something new has occurred in the universe. The magi using the wisdom of the universe at their disposal through the reading of the stars had become aware of the birth of a king – neither a Caesar nor a Herodian one. The magi were no doubt under whelmed by Herod’s lack of awareness or wisdom when it came to the universe or even to his own kingdom or the prophecies of his own religion. And it is no doubt Herod’s unobservant dullness of mind which made the magi realize they too could easily escape the attention of this unperceptive “king” when they wanted to return unnoticed to their own country. Herod, self absorbed, could only understand the promise of a Messiah in terms of how it might affect (or threaten) him personally. That some greater cosmic event not dependent on him was unfolding before his eyes never crossed his king sized self absorbed ego. So he will never see the child that both shepherds and magi are able to find and see with their own eyes. Even if the Christ child had been placed right in front of him, Herod the Great would have been duly unimpressed and not been able to see the child for who he is.
Today, thanks to the Gospel we know what the magi knew even though we don’t know their astrological art, and we also know what Herod did not about the location and the personage of the Messiah. As Luke tells the story, Caesar the man become God in Rome was going to be displaced in the empire by the God become man – this very baby Jesus whom Herod wanted to kill. We are given the perspective that neither Herod nor Caesar knew – what God was doing in their respective kingdoms within their lifetimes. And what God was doing then and there turns out to be significant to you and I, not to mention to every human being anywhere in the world at any point in history.
So as Christmas Day 2007 comes to an end, we realize we know more than the great Caesar Augustus who commanded an empire. We have a better understanding of events than King Herod the Great. Even though we live 2000 years after the actual events, we have the vantage point of understanding what God was doing in our world at the time Christ was born. We can see what both Caesar and Herod could not – God working for the salvation of the world. We can learn from the mistakes of emperors and kings and allow their errors to serve our needs. We can understand the truth about and the significance of the birth of Jesus. And we have the ability to decide how we should live knowing the truth of Christ – an advantage neither king nor emperor had! Unlike Herod or Caesar, we do not have to be limited by self interest. We can be focused both on the small story of one birth in a manger, and we can recognize the cosmic dimension of that story. Christmas is not just about human poverty, but it is also about the voluntary poverty of God who entered the world in Jesus Christ in order to enrich us by saving us. Being Emperor of the world is of no advantage to a person if that emperor/empress still can’t see what God is doing in the world.
Christ is born! Now is the time to figure out what to do to Glorify Him!