In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. (Luke 2:1)
I want to be Augustus in this story. Augustus is decisive and strong. He is the powerful one, the one with all the glamour. When Augustus speaks people listen. He has the ability to get the job done.
Augustus makes me realize how often I feel powerless. There are so many times I am not sure exactly what is going on and find it hard to know how to act decisively. I do not see clearly the best way forward. I am confused and bewildered. The world is a puzzling place.
So much of life is a mystery to me.
But I know the rest of this story. I know that, anyone other than historians of ancient Rome who remembers Augustus at all today, remembers him only because among those whose lives were affected by his decree there was one young insignificant poor and powerless couple.
Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. (Luke 2:4,5)
Throughout the past two thousand years the story of Mary and Joseph has been told and retold. They have been honoured in art, in writing, in drama, in music, in church names, in seasonal greeting cards. Their story is known by millions of ordinary people.
The mystery of Christmas is that what seems so often to be most important is not in fact what is really significant. At the time the “decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered,” it looked as if Augustus was the one in power. He appears to be the major player in this story. But Augustus is now merely a minor figure on the edge of the real story. Nowhere in the world will thousands upon thousands of people gather to remember Augustus every year.
There is more going on in this life than is immediately obvious to the casual observer. We think we are so clever. But, in reality we understand so little. I am stunned by the limitations of my ability to untangle the extraordinary complexity of human affairs even in the smallest and most basic matters of daily life and relationship.
As I face again the deep mystery of this season, I wonder if understanding is really all that important. I want to understand because I believe understanding has the power to protect me from Augustus. In my mind I cling to the illusion that if I can figure things out, I will no longer feel threatened by the arbitrary powers that so often impinge upon my life. But, I know it is an illusion.
Life is unpredictable. At no time has life ever followed a straight line from point “A” to point “B.” Life is a winding twisting trail of unexpected occurrences over which I exercise little control.
The power, the wealth, the control of Augustus are only a slightly more convincing form of this illusion. Because Augustus is surrounded by the trappings of prestige and power, he presents a more compelling fantasy of human control. But, the reality is, that Augustus in his castle, sheltered by his mighty armies is every bit as much at the whim of forces he cannot control as any other person. We are all vulnerable.
The only question worth asking in face of the mystery of this season, is how I will respond when I am faced with my own powerlessness. Will I resist? Or, will I allow my vulnerability to cause my heart to soften and open more deeply?
If I choose, in the face of the unpredictable realities of life, to allow my heart to open, I will discover a dimension of my being deeper than understanding. I will find that the mystery of this season has at its centre an abiding presence that touches all creation with the warmth and tenderness of love. I will learn to live at peace with the mystery of all I cannot begin to comprehend.