In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. 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. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:1–7
We've heard alot lately about something called "border security." The word security is a stand-in for a number of anxieties, and should not be confused with peace. At least, not the peace that the angels announce in Luke at the birth of Jesus. As we approach the manger this Christmas, the Gospel invites us to reflect on what true peace is, which should not be confused with the idolatry of security.
Luke's Christmas story opens with a concrete historical claim, that Joseph and Mary left their primary residence of Nazareth to go to Bethlehem in compliance with a decree (in Greek: dogma) issued by Caesar. If you're interested in chasing that rabbit, see the postscript below. The census served several functions: it gave the Roman Empire an accurate accounting of military aged males who could serve and it provided accurate records for various forms of taxation. Those tax dollars, as taxes do now, flowed back into various coffers both federal and provincial, but they also served to maintain border security.
Border security was an expensive preoccupation of both the Roman and American Empires. As the Roman colonial project expanded, the need to create a buffer zone between Rome and greater Italy increased dramatically. Fortifications, walls, and large amounts of troops were stationed at the borders of the Roman frontier. In fact, Caesar deliberately stationed the troops at the border so as to avoid the appearance of a military despotic regime.
Caesar Augustus supposedly ushered in a forty year period of peace known as the Pax Romana ("Roman Peace"). But the period of Pax Romana was not peaceful by any stretch of the imagination. Roman soldiers were entangled in near-constant battles with various tribal incursions on the frontier, something akin to the "War on Terror" being waged interminably today. The "barbarians" were always at the gate until they truly were at the gate and Rome collapsed.
Enter the Holy Family. Joseph, who until chapter 2 has had scant reference, takes his pregnant fiancée Mary on a 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They go there to register for Caesar's census.
John the Baptist gets a rather long and elaborate birth narrative, and even his daddy experiences a miracle of being able to speak again. But the birth of Jesus is rendered in sparse and economical language.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Many a sermon has been preached about the inhospitable innkeeper who kicked the family out into the cold. More likely in the original Greek kataluma means something like "guest room" not a Motel 6. And it is likely that Mary and Joseph sought different accommodations because the space afforded them was not suitable for giving birth. Imagine a crowded family in a typical Bethlehem home, and the kind of privacy needed for the delivery of a child.
The fact that Jesus was laid in a manger--literally a food trough for animals--is an indication that the place of birth was moved to the dwelling for animals. Rather than an external stable or barn, this was typically attached to the family home. Alternatively, as was tradition from the 2nd century onward, it was thought that Jesus was born in a cave. Origen of Alexandria advances that theory in his dialogue with the pagan Celsus in the Contra Celsum.
However it actually transpired, it wasn't a secure birth in the sense we'd think of neonatal care. There were no Ob-Gyn doctors for a consult, no doulas, no epidurals...and the baby Jesus was laid in a rough-hewn wooden feed trough where animals took their feed. If it was security that God wanted, Mary would never have experienced her pregnancy during the forbidden betrothal period (her pregnancy was grounds for dissolution of the marriage contract and worse according to the law).
If it was security that God wanted, the couple would never have made the 90 mile journey from residence to ancestral homeland during Mary's third trimester.
If it was security that God wanted, there would have been twelve legions of Roman soldiers guarding the birthplace from marauders.
If it was security that God wanted, Jesus on the Cross would have called upon God to "at once send me more than twelve legions of angels" instead of declining the invitation to violence. (Matthew 26:53).
Caesar promises security which always comes with violence. God promises peace.
A peace proclamation was given by the angels to the shepherds in the field:
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors
True peace, peace that transcends our anxiety with border security and terrorism, can only come from God. God gave it 2000 years ago in a humble manger. And God gives it again today, if we are willing to receive it.
Postscript on the census: One of the perplexing elements of the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke is the concrete historical reference to a census undertaken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Historians have objected on several grounds: Quirinius didn't govern Syria until after Herod had died, Augustus would never have issued a general census, and the requirement to return to one's ancestral homeland was not a Roman practice. So, those following the historical critical method have generally said that either Luke was confused, wrong, or engaged in pious theological bending of the historical record in order to get the Holy Family to King David's city of Bethlehem.
So much ink has been spilled on this because there are at least historical documents, concrete persons in the record, and a baseline of facts from which to speculate.
There are some creative solutions to the "problem" created by the historical records. Joseph may have owned real property in Bethlehem, and as it was considered a "suburb" of Jerusalem which was a Roman metropolis, he stood to realize up to a 50% tax break. I call this the "Estate Planning Theory." Nobody else does. Alternatively, since most of our information comes from Josephus, it could be that Josephus was mistaken or incomplete in his accounts. Whatever theory you choose, the importance of resolving the census issue pales in comparison to the underlying claim of the New Testament as exegeted by the Christian tradition: that in Jesus God became Incarnate. The presence of God Incarnate in the manger should shake us to our foundations. Christmas is a far more radical tale than the commercialized version we too often practice imagines.