Princeton University Religious Life

Emperor Of All The World

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
December 24, 2009
Christmas Eve Sermon ~ Luke 2: 1-20

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” All the world! Wow – this one man, Augustus, has power over all the world! Well – not quite. He was Caesar, the ruler of the Roman Empire; it was massive, and it must have encompassed all of the world known to the Evangelist Luke, who wrote these words. All around the Mediterranean and spreading through Europe went the power of this man, this Caesar. He was Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, given the honorific of Augustus, meaning “revered one”, at the age of 36. It was he who had consolidated the leadership of the Roman Empire into one man’s hands – his own. To do so, he had forced out the two other men in the ruling triumvirate, one of them being Marc Antony, he of the famous paramour Cleopatra. To those in Rome and in its provincial governments who profited from Augustus’s firm rule, he was a marvelous ruler. They renamed one month of the year after him, and we still use it today. Across the occupied lands of the vast empire, however, Augustus was despised and feared. When he decreed any little thing from Rome, peasants in such remote, irrelevant, and backwater places as the Judean hill country did it.   

“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.” How many times before and since have heavy-handed regimes used registration, or classification, to increase their hold on the people? Nazism leaps to mind, with citizens classified and publically marked by religious, racial, sexual, and other identifiers. Apartheid also leaps to mind with its legislated criteria for racial identify, it’s absurd “racial” tests and background checks, and its firm stratification for every member of society. Over two decades, in multiple visits to Guatemala, I have heard there about the beautiful trajé, the intricately woven clothing worn by the majority of the population who are Mayan. Shirts and slacks, blouses and skirts and headwear have colors and patterns that identify their wearer, even today, with very specific regions and villages. These vestments are worn now with such pride, but apparently they originally were ordered - devised - by the conquistadors, who subdivided the land – and the people who lived on it – into their own fiefdoms. If the people who walked across your territory wore the clothing of another area, you knew they were interlopers, and maybe troublemakers, maybe people agitating for Mayan independence, or people fleeing from a vicious overlord. They could be dealt with firmly. How often have people used registration and classification to subjugate an occupied people?

The Emperor Augustus used it to great effect. He couldn’t expand his empire and grow his army without more and more tax money, and so this registration was intended to expand his coffers through updated census records. No one stayed below the imperial Roman radar! It was also a chance to update records on who, in the vast provinces, was eligible to be conscripted into the imperial Roman army – to then be deployed to a Province far from home where the locals were people that a soldier could not identify with. If he couldn’t really communicate with them, and certainly couldn’t identify with then, he could more easily be trained to violate their dignity. He could more easily be taught to consider them sub-human. In this aspect of the Registration, Joseph was lucky. Jews were not permitted to be conscripted. 

In the birth of the baby Jesus, the Emperor Augustus looms large. Who are some of the other actors? As I’ve said, when the mighty Augustus decreed something from Rome, peasants in “all the world” – in the remotest parts of the massive empire – toed the line. And so a young artisan living in Nazareth had to go sign-in in Bethlehem, about 80 miles away. That’s where “his people” were from. There was no negotiation possible with the local representatives of Rome, and so Joseph had to make the journey with his fiancée at the most difficult time imaginable – she was due to give birth. Then, travelers had to bring all their food and animal feed with them. There were inns but no restaurants, no room service. One translation of our text from Luke says, “there was no room for them in the place where they had planned to stay.” You couldn’t exactly make an online reservation in advance. They arrived, she was going into labor, and the only space available was perhaps the courtyard of the inn with its mangers and animals – the retinue of travelers and the livestock of the inn-keepers. Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem, but apparently nobody lived there currently. No relatives to bunk with, but a decent inn known to stay at. Alas – it is already full of the other native Bethlehemites who’ve traveled here also to answer Augustus’s decree. It’s the courtyard for Mary, Joseph, their donkey, their imminent baby, and the livestock of the innkeepers and of every other traveler.

What other actors are on this scene? How about those shepherds, watching their flocks by night! These were very humble young men – boys, even. It was their job to sleep outside, watching over the bleating animals that were their families’ source of livelihood. They were unable to fully participate in the practice of their faith. Keeping the law and maintaining rituals of cleanliness and other things were impossible in their situation. Their profession, like so many today, was absolutely essential but not highly regarded. It is to them that angels appear – they are the first people on earth to know what has happened. The shepherds see the first angel and are struck with what is translated both as “fear” and “reverence,” and I love what the angel says in effect to them – “stop being all faithful, get your act together; I need you to listen to what I say because you, you are to spread the news to the world” – someone was born in Bethlehem, it was today, it’s the actual savior – the Messiah, and he’s in a feed trough. And the shepherds leave their post and their flocks. They’ve been told no names, given no directions, and on faith alone they find this nameless family in the courtyard of one of the teeming city’s many inns.

What other actor is in this story? Jesus, of course.    We’ve gone from the Emperor of all the world, to the governor named Quirinius, to the respectable young couple - an artisan and his bride-to-be, law-abiding, faithful, loaded with integrity. We get to those shepherds, primitive, faithful, dropping everything to go and witness the bizarre news from monstrous informants. And then whoa - there are angels from Heaven but out of nowhere! And at the bottom – or is it the center – of all of this is an infant. We start with the Emperor and we end with – a nobody. He is tiny and vulnerable. He has no power whatsoever. Caesar Augustus is 66 years old and at the very height of his dominion over “all the world,” but this technically illegitimate baby born in a desperate town in a backward province shakes the foundations of all the power and might of Caesar Augustus, of all that he stands for.

Roman inscriptions have been found that call Caesar Augustus “savior,” and “good news;” they say his gift to the world is “peace on earth.” Augustus did initiate a time of relative peace, the Pax Romana, but it was accomplished by the sword, by domination, by subjugation. It was top down. Its criterion was physical violence. The savior – the little sovereign – born on Christmas will bring a peace whose foundations are wholly opposite. Its cornerstones are not power but humility, not force but love, not domination but gentleness. In these things is the true strength that can bring the peace among nations for which we all yearn, and peace in violent neighborhoods, and peace in violent homes. On Christmas we remember that the yearning of humanity for peace is stronger than our apparent addiction to war. We remember that love is stronger than hate, hope stronger than despair, our courage stronger than our fear, vulnerability stronger than all might. The gift of the Prince of Peace is the power by faith to vanquish hate, fear, despair, the abuse of power. It is the peace of our deepest longing – the peace of knowing not just who we are but whose we are, the peace of contentment in our inmost heart. No matter where this last year has taken you – to the heights of accomplishment or affection, to the abyss of grief, to the muddle of feeling stuck, or to the challenges of life’s transitions that seem never to end, I hope that your big gift this Christmas won’t be under your tree but inside your spirit, the peace of Christ, the peace that passes all human understanding, the peace that gives you – and me – the power to be loving, humble, merciful, faithful. These are not the qualities of a wuss, but of the mightiest person indeed, like the baby in that Bethlehem feed trough, that baby whose reign of love does overwhelm all dominations, all garments rolled in blood, all decrees from overlords everywhere. May that baby leave you tonight with wonderful questions to act upon for a lifetime; what is peace? What is power? And who is Emperor of all the world? 


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