“And in those days a decree went out Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Luke 2:1. And with that we reach the familiar scripture that is read every Christmas Eve. Strange words that have become a part of our familiar Christmas. The birth of Jesus begins with the Emperor. Amy-Jill Levine contends that the Emperor most likely would not have ordered such a census in a region where there was a local King, King Herod. For me that doesn’t matter. Luke is telling a story and he is making a big point in the first line. What’s about to happen is bigger than the local story… a baby who is coming is for the world.
We should also consider just what such a census meant in “those days”. Today in our world, the United States Census Bureau has more than 4,000 employees who virtually (and sometimes literally) bring the survey to us. I remember being surprised one day when a man showed up at my front door. The census that came through the mail was still in a pile of old mail on my desk and long sense forgotten. The man introduced himself, told me that it was his job to visit the houses of those who had not returned the survey. He actually apologized for intruding on my Saturday. Needless to say I was embarrassed that I was one of “those” who had to be tracked down. He came inside, showed me all of his credentials and then we just chatted while he filled out my census form. That is a far cry from being asked to travel back to your home town to be counted. Joseph and Mary had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, because Joseph was from the lineage of David. It was about 90 miles and Mary was nine months pregnant.
Beyond the convenience of our census today, the survey yields data used to determine social services and voting districts, areas that help citizens. For Joseph and Mary the census was about taxes, establishing the tax base. Sometimes, it was about military conscription; men who were counted could be taken into military service for the Roman government. That was how the Roman kingdom operated.
Luke has set the global stage and he is about to tell us what the antithesis of the Roman kingdom looks like. Jesus will show the world a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God based on caring for the poor, inclusion of all and servant leadership.
(Amy-Jill Levine, Light of the World) “ Luke’s readers (in the early church) know that Jesus is from Nazareth and they know that Jesus proclaimed ‘the kingdom of God’, which does sound political. By setting Jesus’ birth in the context of a census, Luke announces that Jesus and his followers are not part of a movement intent on military revolt. Instead of rebelling, Mary and Joseph obey the government command, no matter the personal hardship.”
Grace and Peace at Advent