Submitting to the Imperial Yoke
Chapter 2 begins with Luke telling us how imperial subject (not citizen) Joseph submits to the demand of the emperor. Augustus, from his throne in Rome has issued a degree, a degree that filters down to all the little folk throughout his whole household.
When we say “census” we imagine forms from the government packaged with all sorts of promises about no immigration or taxation repercussions. I remember a census in the Dominican Republic when they came to the house and asked questions like “did we have a radio, a blender, etc.”
This Roman registration is the great king counting his subjects so he can know who they are to do with them as he wishes. Taxation. Imperial service. There is no end to what the great Augustus can command. It was Augustus who has brought peace to the world. The registration is another instrument of that peace. The registration is the means by which the peace will be enforced. Joseph must go to Bethlehem.
Bethlehem, the town of David, Israel’s great king is now a spot occupied by Augustus, and itself a tool used by him to make pawns of David’s descendants. So thorough is the lordship of Augustus that David’s sons, in David’s city must obey. This is the peace of Rome.
The Unwed Mother in Tow
Joseph, obediently submitting to Roman imperial command brings with him his fiance, an unwed mother-to-be. Luke highlights for us that although Joseph and Mary have not yet married, he has her in tow. Why? Has her family put her out? Without Joseph is she no longer safe in Nazareth? Must she too appear before a Roman bureaucrat? Must she be counted as Joseph’s dependent? Is this errand so uncompromising that an exception for the life of the mother and child cannot be considered? Was their trip in such haste that Joseph could not secure suitable accommodations requiring a feeding trough to be the cleanest spot in which to lay the child?
The Strange Impotence of Heaven
Angels are about to appear to the shepherds in the fields. They will, as we know, reveal to them the glory and power of God and bestow upon the newborn child titles of power and promise. As is almost always the case with this Jesus, the all stops are pulled in places where they seem to matter not.
- Couldn’t an angel write a note to the empire excusing the mother of God from an arduous trip right before she is ready to give birth?
- Couldn’t an angel explain to the family of Mary that she really was a good girl who kept her legs together?
- Couldn’t an angel do a bit of administrative assistance in Bethlehem to secure better accommodations for the holy couple? Surely even just a small, less significant angel appearing at one of the better Jewish homes in town could have reserved for the weary couple and child a decent room and a helpful midwife?
This will be the way of Jesus and his mission all along the way. Angelic appearance come at strange time, but more importantly seem absent at the times we’d most want them.
- An angel will show up to comfort Jesus before his arrest, but not when the soldiers come. Heaven’s timing seems the worse possible.
- An angelic appearance I would imagine would punctuate nearly any preaching point. “You don’t believe the poor are blessed? Watch me summon an angel and have him sing and shine like a thousand watt bulb for you?!”
The Pax Bethlemitica
While the angels are of absolutely no help for comfort and security of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, they will light up the sky over the pasture lands better than a Vegas show.
Shepherds are there, one of the groups of most lowly status in society. Shepherds were considered to be so untruthful that their testimony was not permitted in court. So in God’s strange economy of angelic deployment these guys get the show. This is why we shouldn’t be surprise when its always the most scurrilous people who show up to make the most outlandish claims of divine messaging. I’m not saying they’re all right. I am saying that it seems to be precisely these types of folks that God likes to speak to. Have you yet come to terms out God’s outrageous sense of humor?
So the angels show up and make their declaration to these unreliable sources:
- The rescuer of God’s people, the heir of great David has been born in David’s own town
- Proof of this is easy, go see for yourself. He’ll be a baby looking no different from anyone else. No special room. No special clothes. Laid in a feed trough like the child of one of your neglected women
And then the big announcement. This is the inauguration of the Pax Bethlemitica which exposes the Pax Romana to be empty propaganda for earth’s same old tyranny.
It was the necessities of the Pax Romana that drove Joseph and pregnant Mary into Bethlehem. It was the Pax Romana that has no place for shepherds.
The Pax Romana will not be unseated by angelic armies but will be undermined by its rival splayed naked on a cross showing its Pax to be a sham perpetrated at the expense of the poor and the weak like every other empire of earth.
The Pax Bethlemitica will work in the other direction. The empire of earth demand that the emperor’s will be done at the expense of all who are less powerful. The ruler of the Pax Bethlemitica will advantage itself by no angelic power but will conquer by love.
Why Angels Sing instead of Fight
The impotence of heaven is the seeming impotence of love. What country has love ever conquered? What taxes has love ever demanded? We want angels to dazzle or coerce privilege and security but God will use love to draw us into his Pax.
Mary is Taking Notes
The shepherds became a praise team but Mary quietly takes notes. She is learning the ways of God in how to conquer with love.
- She is exposed to violence and shame by her inexplicable pregnancy
- She is carted down to Bethlehem at the risk of her health and that of her child
- An angel shows up privately or to brutes that none will believe
- There is no privilege that she can count on for her comfort or security. She will suffer in anticipation of the sufferings of her son.
She will need to learn these lessons.
- She will rightly worry for her son’s safety
- She will worry for her son’s sanity
- She will watch him be tortured and killed by the empire that had been pushing her and her people around all of their lives.
The Invitation to the Pax Bethlemitica
The Pax Bethlemitica is always at its best when it is like this.
- Angels show up in times and places precisely where they will not be believed or advantage taken for their appearance.
- The people of God are crushed under the duty of the world’s empires
- The untrustworthy and the quietly faithful are used by the peace-come-to-earth to expose the false pretense of empires from this world
On the 4th of July in 13BC the Roman Senate commissioned an altar for Caesar Augustus celebrating his Pax. It was an altar to the goddess Peace. The “Tellus Relief” portrays goddess mother earth with children, animals, goddesses of nymphs displaying how his Pax brings bounty to the world.
Would the involuntary recipients of this Pax find it so life-giving?
This year in thousands of places will people set up images to Augustus and his Pax? Or will they instead tell the story of Joseph, Mary, shepherds and the child in a manger?
The Pax Bethlemitica continues to conquer in the way it does, without angelic swordplay or obvious supernatural privilege but rather by the subtle power of its champion, born, crucified, raised, ascended.