St. Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus begins with the simple words, “In those days…” And in a few sentence that follow Luke gives us a political snapshot of those days.
The Romans were rulers of the western world then, with a tight grip on Jesus’ homeland of Palestine. Caesar Augustus was the emperor. Quirinius was his governor in Syria, and so he was in charge of Palestine in those days. Later, we’ll hear that Pontius Pilate represented the Romans in Judea.
In those days, Rome decreed that a census be taken of the whole world, Luke tells us. The government wanted to know how many people were in the areas it controlled, particularly areas like Palestine. The reason for the census was primarily financial. The Roman empire was stretched financially; Rome needed money for its wars and expensive military occupations. The Romans were into big construction projects, and so they were looking for every penny they could get from the people under them.
In places like Palestine the Romans got their money through a system that depended on tax-collectors. We hear about them all through the gospels. Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples, was a tax-collector. They were contractors who worked under rather loose Roman supervision. The Romans established financial quotas for them, and the tax-collectors in turn got the money from the people anyway they could. The ordinary people hated them.
I think the reason for the census that Luke mentions was that someone blew the whistle on the Palestinian tax collectors. I think they were cheating the government and someone in the Roman treasury department said: “We need more financial oversight in Palestine. We have the bring our accountants in. We have to find out how many people are really there to tax.”
Now, the census was a very disruptive process; we can see its disruptiveness in the gospel story. People had to leave their jobs and their homes. It didn’t matter if a woman like Mary was pregnant. The social cost of the census in human terms and the Roman attempts to reform their economy must have been high. Certainly, the Romans knew it, but the Roman officials probably said: “ Yes, we going to have bad times but we have to go through them if we’re going to rebuild our financial system here and our empire is to go on.”
I think you can see what I’m getting at with my little excursion into the history of those days. Those days sound something like our days, don’t they? It’s easy to romanticize the birth of Jesus, but basically he was born in bad days.
The shepherds are key figures in the Christmas story. People looked down on them. They were uneducated, toughened by the wind and the rain in the lonely hills; their job was hard and dangerous and undesirable. They tended sheep because someone had to do it. Looking at their economic status in those days, they were at the bottom of the heap.
In bad times the shepherds would feel it more than anyone. The people on the bottom always feel bad times the most. It was to them, watching on the dark hills, that the angel came announcing great joy.They had a lonely existence. But it was to them, watching on the dark hills “For you and for all the people, your Savior has been born, who is Christ the Lord.” Go to Bethlehem, a Child there in a manger.
In bad times, it’s always good to listen to the message the angel brings and to go to the Child in a manger.
The faith we receive from this Child doesn’t mean that everything is going to change for the better. After the shepherds visit, the Romans were still firmly in charge of the world, their armies still marched and they still wrung every ounce they could from the poor; the census continued till everyone was counted, and after it was over I’m sure tax-collectors found other ways to beat the system.
The blessing that faith brings, however, is its basic affirmation that God loves the world and all of us. The God we see visible in Jesus is not a distant God,uninterested and uninvolved in what we are all about here on earth. He is the Word made flesh. And he comes to us as we are, fearful, worried about the future, and wondering what the days ahead will bring. This Child brings a courageous patience, not only to endure what we must but to build a new world, to work that God’s kingdom come.
“Don’t be afraid,” the angel says to them and to us. “Don’t be afraid.”