"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”
So begins and ends the role of the most powerful person on the planet in the greatest story ever told. Taken from the Gospel of Luke, these words set the context in which Jesus Christ came to be born in Bethlehem: An important man had a grand idea.
As Rome’s first emperor, Caesar Augustus ruled supreme. Across the globe, his name was known and his word was obeyed. Yet at Christmas, as people celebrate the seminal union of creation and Creator, he rates only passing mention. Joseph and Mary, traveling to the City of David in accordance with Augustus’ orders, took refuge in a rude shelter so she could give birth to her child. As “all the world” moved to comply with an emperor’s proclamation, who would have imagined the destiny of humankind was laying in a manger?
This is one of the many welcome messages of Christmas: Man is not in control. Our ambitions do not rule the universe – and what an encouraging thought that is. God’s ways are not our ways, and though this sometimes brings suffering, as prayers seem unanswered and we struggle through the agony of a broken world, it also brings hope. Look at the world of men and wonder who would want them to have the final word. Many things that matter most to us – power, prestige, wealth and renown – do not reckon in God’s estimation. Even if, like Augustus, we achieve the pinnacle in each of these, we can still be confounded and forgotten.
The story of Christmas reminds us where true power dwells. It is in love, and humility, and evinced through God’s use of the weak to shame the strong. That means every one of us has a chance, and it means we all matter.
Each of us comes to Christmas – and every day of the year – with hopes and fears, clinging with joy or pain to those things we think are important. To be sure, some of these are important to God, as well. We may sense when our desires match those of the divine, as we are designed to appreciate the power of gentleness, the feeling of selfless love, and the warmth of a servant’s heart. But there are other concerns we carry around, priorities of men but pittances to God, and Christmas gives us a chance to set them down. Saint Paul offers simple counsel and encouragement to do just that: “Test everything. Hold on to the good.”
There is liberation to be had by admitting we are not in command. As we recognize the limits of human power, we concede that our understanding of God is inchoate. This frees us from prejudices and serves to reinforce the Christmas message. For example, those of us who believe in the divinity of Jesus and the salvation obtained through his birth, death and resurrection must recognize that our appreciation of these events is incomplete. Indeed, the Gospels themselves give varying descriptions of Christ’s nativity and life, reminding us that we are reading the Word of God, rendered by imperfect people.
This means that as arguments over religion and belief swirl around December 25 and persist throughout the year, we can take peace in recognizing that none of us has all the answers. Whether we are great or small, Christmas invites us to embrace the precious simplicity pronounced by the angels two millennia ago: “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men."
Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.