The indignities of the first Christmas

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It’s hard to imagine that there was once a time when one man, simply by decree, could order a census of the whole world.

It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when, hearing such a decree, every man, woman and child would gather their belongings and travel to the hometown of their ancestors to be enrolled. No doubt there was grumbling and resistance, and not a few folks who hid from the census obligation, but most of the world obeyed.

Can you imagine what it must have been like? Families had to leave the places they had come to regard as home and go to the towns of their ancestors to take part in this census. It was not just a matter of packing for a simple trip: Provision had to be made for their animals while they were away; for their homes and businesses; for their sick family members. Packing food and clothing would have been a major undertaking — and it had to be carried by man, woman, or animal, on the most wearisome of journeys.

Some people would have had to take to dusty desert roads, such as they were, and no doubt others would have had to take to ships and cross the sea to reach their family place.

Can you imagine? Gathering your family, leaving your home, and going to your ancestors’ place of birth … just for a census?

And can you imagine making such a trip if you were pregnant, or if your wife was pregnant? What anxieties would have flooded your mind? What physical discomforts? What resentments? Who does Caesar Augustus think he is, issuing such a ridiculous decree?

And most unimaginable of all, can you picture Mary and Joseph on this census journey, she having been told by an angel and he having been told in a dream that she was to give birth to the Savior of the world? Yet off they went, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the Savior of the world obeying the decree of an earthly emperor.

Recounting this story, St. Luke teaches something critical about Jesus: that from his conception, he subjected himself to human and Mosaic law and took part in every human experience, except for sin. Though he was the Son of God, he did not exempt himself from such laws, or from the discomforts of traveling for a census, or from even greater sufferings sure to come his way. Not only was he to fulfill the law — he was to fulfill it perfectly, so that it could be surpassed by a new one.

Luke gives another hint at Jesus’ mission as he recounts what the angel said to the shepherds:

Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12)

The Savior was “to you” and “for all the people” and “for you” — everything about him was to be a gift of love, a sacrifice, “for you” — that is, “for us.”

Perhaps this point will be clearer if we think of the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper, the very words we repeat in every Mass:

“This is my body, which will be given up for you.”

“This is the cup of my blood. … It will be shed for you.”

This Advent and Christmas, let’s picture Mary and Joseph undergoing the hardship of the census journey for us. How many times have you made such a journey — gone out of your way, borne hardships and anxieties — out of love for family and friends? Certainly you have done such a thing. Mary pondered, and Joseph wondered trustingly, as they made that hard journey … humble, like their Son, following the law with its hardships and indignities.

This was only the beginning, of course. As the years would pass, Jesus would reveal what his new law was all about, just how far he would go “for us.”

Perhaps as Christmas approaches, it’s helpful to stop and reflect on how they made that rough journey in wonder and worry, how no one had room for them, how Jesus was born in a stable among the farm animals, and how Mary and Joseph finally drifted off to fitful sleep on beds of hay. And it is helpful to stop and reflect that they endured all this for us.

The mighty Caesar Augustus, who claimed he was divine, ruled by decree. Jesus, the Son of God, showed us from the beginning a different reign, another way to rule: by love, and love alone.

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - December 2017

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain

Send your prayer intentions to Archbishop Sartain’s Prayer List, Archdiocese of Seattle, 710 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.