By Tom Boogaart
Christmas is a time for Christians to be thinking about emperors, although you would never know this attending a typical Christmas pageant. Every year we faithfully gather to listen to a narration loosely based on the Gospel of Luke and see a procession of church-school children representing Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, and wise men. But there is someone very important to the Christmas story whom we never see, someone without whom the story makes little sense.
Luke begins his story with Emperor Augustus and his display of absolute power. The Emperor rules from his throne in Rome, and his word sets the world in motion. Like a god he says, “Let there be,” and we find that “it was so.” He decrees that “all the world should be registered,” and in response, all the world moves. As Luke makes clear, “All went….” Mary and Joseph are just two among perhaps millions who felt the power of the Emperor’s word.
Luke continues, “All went to their own towns to be registered.” The Emperor has the power to reduce every person in every tribe and nation to a number. Once registered, each person becomes a line-item in his book of life and can be added and subtracted according to calculations of greed and control. The Emperor’s power over Mary and Joseph is absolute as Luke’s story begins.
In sharp contrast to the power of the Emperor is the power of the child: “And she gave birth, to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manager, because there was no place for them in the inn.” This child is dressed in bands of cloth, while Caesar is dressed in purple. This child lies in a manger, while Caesar sits on a golden throne. This child cannot speak a word, while Caesar’s words change the face of the world.
Emperor Augustus is seemingly the Savior, the God-anointed One, and the Lord of the world, yet the angels appropriate these royal titles and attribute them to Jesus. They announce to the shepherds that they have good news for “all people.” In the context of the story, all people are the oppressed people whom the Emperor has forced to register. The angels tell the shepherds that a Savior and Lord has been born and that a sign of his lordship is this: “You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
With these words Luke has set up the stark contrast between Emperor Augustus and the manger child. The shepherds and, of course, all the hearers of the story both then and now, stand between these two emperors. We all have to make a decision. Only one is Lord of the universe and Savior of the world. The shepherds go to check it out, and they tell others, “and all who heard it were amazed at what they shepherds told them.” “Amazed” is the right word. Such an unlikely story of emperor and empire.
Luke concludes his story with Mary, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Surely some of the words that she was pondering were her own, words from the song she composed after the visitation of the angel Gabriel: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” “Pondered” is the right world. Such an unlikely story of the reversal of power in this world.
Tom Boogaart teaches Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.