The emperor, Caesar Augustus, was a powerful man, probably the most powerful of his time.
He was the grand-nephew of Julius Caesar and, after his great-uncle’s death, he won the throne of the Roman Empire. He ushered in a time known as the Pax Romana, a period of peace in the known world. When his uncle was declared a god by the Roman senate - that was something that happened back then - Augustus began calling himself the “son of a god.”
To call a census was another real sign of his power. An emperor would want to know how many people lived under his rule, where they lived, who they were - and especially how much he should be getting in taxes from his subjects.
By his order, everything could be set into motion, moving from him, through all his officials, to various governors and kings and ministers, all the way down to a couple he would never know about, Mary and Joseph.
These two were at the other end of the spectrum from the great Caesar Augustus. They lived in an unimportant town in an unimportant province of the empire - far away from Rome and from the attention of the emperor - but his order reached them as well and so they traveled to the hometown of Joseph’s family, Bethlehem to be enrolled in the census. Just another family doing what they had to do because of what Caesar wanted.
In the midst of all of this, Jesus was born into the world.
One way of looking at this story is that the actions of a powerful ruler effected a poor family. This happens all the time - from ancient times to this very day. History seems to be moved by people like Caesar Augustus while everyone else just lives their lives. The Caesars of the world are the only ones who seem to be able to make a real difference. They can change the world just by saying so.
That, however, is not the reason that we come together to celebrate tonight/today. People don’t get together year after year to celebrate Caesar Augustus. They don’t decorate their homes or buy each other gifts to remember this emperor from two thousand years ago.
Caesar Augustus is gone.
You can find statues of him in Rome and read about him in history books, but he is not powerful anymore.
We gather here - like every year - because of that baby. The one that the emperor would never hear about; the one who was born in a stable because his family had no real place to stay.
We are here because that baby was the one with the real power.
God entered into our world and our history - not with a show of power, but with humility.
God lowered Himself. All the way down to being born as a helpless baby.
The people who came to honor Him on that night weren’t the powerful. Angels didn’t appear to Caesar in his palace in Rome, but to shepherds in the fields watching through the night. God revealed the good news of His Son’s birth to the humble, to those who weren’t out seeking power but were performing the duty they had been given.
That is a lesson for all of us on this Christmas. We all come here for different reasons, with our own histories, and our own relationships with God. Whether you feel close to Him or like you don’t really know Him at all, we gather here because we want to meet Jesus.
To do that, we have to meet Him where He came to meet us. We can’t approach Him thinking we have it all figured out or that we don’t really need anything from Him. We can’t come to the manger with just a desire to see something interesting and then get on with our lives.
We must come in humility recognizing in that child the answer to every question and every desire we have.
Imagine for just a moment that you are one of those shepherds. They had just seen something unbelievable: a host of angels singing “glory to God.” The reaction everyone in the Bible has to seeing an angel is fear. Every time, the angel’s first words are are, “Do not be afraid.”
Imagine hearing the good news that the savior had been born nearby. Now you are rushing to the place where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are staying. You enter in and see a baby, just as the angel said.
Would you kneel? Would you stay back, feeling awkward? Would you even know what to say?
That is the hope you have been waiting for. He is the fulfillment of every promise God has made. Finally, God is so close to us that you could touch Him.
What if Mary asked if you wanted to hold Him? What would that be like - to hold the one who made you, to look into the eyes of the one who live-streams you completely.
We still have that chance.
My friends, Jesus is here among us. He is here loving you and offering Himself to you.
You may not know this, but Bethlehem means “house of bread.” At this mass, Jesus gives Himself to us as bread - another way that God humbly makes Himself present in our lives.
On that first Christmas, it probably seemed that it would be Caesar’s name that would be remembered. That he would be the one who would stand out as a powerful, influential figure in history. Sure, we know who he is and some of what he’s done; but the one who really changed things in history and, more importantly, for each one of us was that hidden, unknown baby.
Let us humbly follow the shepherds to the manger.
Let us kneel before God made man.
Let us celebrate this Christmas by inviting the Lord Jesus into our lives in a new way.