On Sept. 23, 63 BC, a son was born to a prominent Roman family. They gave him the name Gaius, but when Julius Caesar adopted the young man, he took the name Octavian. Elected consul in 43, the Roman senate gave him the title "Augustus" on Jan. 16, in the year 27 BC.
Sometime around 3 or 4 BC, the Gospel of Luke tells us that the divine Augustus ordered "that a census should be taken of the whole inhabited world." (Barclay's translation)
In the distant, backwater province of Judea, men and women descended on their ancestral homes. Hundreds streamed into Bethlehem, a small, dusty village about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. Among them were a peasant couple from another dusty village, Nazareth, up north, in the Galilee. Their names were Yosef and Miriam, or as they have been anglicized, Joseph and Mary. And again Luke tells us that while they were in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor and their first child, a son, was born. They named him Yeshua, Joshua, Jesus, a Hebrew name meaning, "God saves".
Like hundreds of others in Bethlehem, Yosef registered himself and Miriam and Yeshua. The minor Roman bureaucrat who wrote down their names and treated Yosef with the indifference or contempt that the conquerors feel toward the conquered. Their names were scratched with quill pens on to papyrus, and the required number of copies were made. Perhaps a copy was kept in the Roman headquarters in Caesarea Maritima, and perhaps another copy was sent to Rome. However, it is unlikely that it ever came to the attention of the divine Augustus that a Jewish peasant named Yosef and his wife Miriam had a son named Yeshua.
Augustus presided over a period of extraordinary peace, the pax Romana. An inscription dating from 7 BC states that "it is hard to say whether the birthday of the most divine Caesar is more joyful or more advantageous; we may rightly regard it as like the beginning of all things, if not in the world of nature, yet in advantage; everything was deteriorating and changing into misfortune, but he set it right and gave the whole world another appearance.... The birthday of the god was the beginning of the good news to the world on his account". (IDB, vol. 1, p. 319)
Then, on August 14, in the year 14 AD, something happened to the divine Augustus that is not supposed to happen to gods: he died. The Jewish infant, Yeshua, who had been registered in the Roman census in Bethlehem many years before, was now a young man nearly 20 years old.
Augustus died; Yeshua, Jesus, lived. He lived and taught and called men and women to follow him and learn from him and worked miracles and, of course, he ran afoul of the authorities, was arrested, given a mock trial, was crucified, and died... and rose again and lives... and lives... and lives.
About 30 years after Jesus died and rose again, an author we know as Mark wrote an account of the life of Jesus. Perhaps echoing the inscription that honored the divine Augustus, Mark began his account of Jesus' life in this way: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Messiah..."
One Roman emperor followed another and in the course of time, the rule of Rome fell to one Constantine. Unlike his predecessor Augustus, Constantine did not accept divine honors. Instead, he honored the divinity of the Jewish peasant Yeshua and accepted baptism in his name.
Constantine raised a great church in Bethlehem over the site of Yeshua's birth, and today a church still stands over the site of Constantine's basilica.
Several years ago the English author Malcolm Muggeridge visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He was taken aback by the gaudy ornamentation that surrounds the crypt where the birth of Jesus is remembered.
"Who but a credulous fool could possibly suppose that the place marked in the crypt with a silver cross was veritably the precise spot where Jesus had been born? The Holy Land, as it seemed to me, had been turned into a sort of Jesusland, on the lines of Disneyland.
"Everything in the crypt ‑‑ the garish hangings which covered the stone walls, the tawdry crucifixes and pictures and hanging lamps ‑‑ was conducive to such a mood... How foolish and inappropriate... to furbish up what purported to be Jesus's birthplace with stage effects decking out his bare manger to look like a junk‑shop crammed with discarded ecclesiastical bric‑a‑brac!"
Then Muggeridge began to notice the men and women who descended to the crypt and peered into the shrine where the birth of Jesus is commemorated.
"...each face as it came into view was in some degree transfigured by the experience of being in what purported to be the actual scene of Jesus's birth. This, they all seemed to be saying, was where it happened; here he came into the world! here we shall find him! The boredom, the idle curiosity, the vagrant thinking all disappeared. Once more in that place glory shone around, and angel voices proclaimed: Unto you is born this day ... a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord!" (Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus, pp. 14‑15)
Even though we are in Birmingham, Alabama, and not in Bethlehem, we can, as the Bidding Prayer, said go "in heart and mind... even unto Bethlehem". We can go because, unlike the divine Augustus, the divine Jesus lives.
His birth was a sharp, bright spark of light in the midst of darkest night. It was a flame that has kindled other flames, spreading throughout Judea and Samaria, going on to Rome, and out to the ends of the world. The light kindled by that birth in Bethlehem was "the light that enlightens every one". "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it". (John 1.5, 9)
The inscription honoring the divine Augustus was wrong. The birthday of Augustus is forgotten. Augustus, the bureaucrats who administered his census, and the papyrus on which it was recorded all lie in the dust. Jesus, though, who proclaimed that his kingdom was not of this world, rules in the hearts of men and women on every continent. It is his birthday which "we may rightly regard as the beginning of all things... everything was deteriorating and changing into misfortune, but he set it right and gave the whole world another appearance.... [his] birthday ... was the beginning of the good news to the world ..." (IDB, vol. 1, p. 319)
Glory to God in the highest. Amen.