In the gospel, Caesar speaks, and God speaks. St. Luke tells us: “It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” (Luke 2:1). Caesar exercises his power with an edict that required all to be counted, and all to pay. Meanwhile, the silent Word of God is sleeping in Bethlehem. God exercises his power by sending his Son into the world to be born in a manger. As Psalm 2 says, “I will rehearse the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.”
This is the very kind of behavior that causes people to doubt the existence of God. If God is Almighty, why is the Word silent and sleeping? Why does God make the Mother of God travel seventy miles to give birth? Why doesn’t God require them to make room at the inn for his Son? Why doesn’t God force people to do what he wants? Why isn’t God more like Caesar?
God acts in this manner throughout the Bible. He speaks in ways that are not very impressive at first: Noah builds a boat; Abraham leaves his country and makes a long and arduous journey to the land of promise; Moses appears before Pharaoh; the boy Samuel is sent to live with Eli the priest; the young man David is anointed as king. It wasn’t obvious in these circumstances that God’s actions had any relevance to the problem at hand. But this is the way God exercises power. He accomplishes his will over time through flesh and blood people who are faithful to obey him in the ordinary course of life; who fight actual battles and conquer real enemies.
There is a kind of power that seems frightening and awesome in the moment, but is revealed over time to be but another tedious display of human pride destined for failure. And there is a kind of power that seems weak and ineffectual in the moment, but has a transforming influence in the long run. There are those who yell and demand, who extort and strong arm, who use their positions of authority to take advantage of others. Time reveals them to be sinners awaiting a terrible judgment. There are those who quietly do the will of God. They confront evil and encourage the good. They us their gifts to serve others and are faithful unto death. Time reveals them to be the children of God.
Christmas is only the beginning of the story that will come to a climax on Good Friday and Easter. It is a real story, and that is what makes it powerful. Christmas reminds us that God conquered sin, suffering and death by facing actually temptation, enduring real pain and allowing himself to be killed. God redeemed human life by actually living one. There is a part of us that doesn’t like this method. There is a part of us that wants God to do it the easy way; to get rid of all pain and suffering by magic. Let God speak from his throne in heaven and simply decree that there be no more sin, no more suffering and no more death!
The problem is that real enemies cannot be conquered by mere bluster and rant. Real enemies can only be conquered by actually facing them and actually conquering them. This is the secret to understanding God’s work in our lives. God doesn’t magically take things away. Rather, he gives us the grace and power to conquer them through faith over time.
Once God enters the story, the victorious outcome is assured. To be sure, the battle must still be fought. Herod will rise up in violent opposition. The Holy family will flee to Egypt. The Holy Innocents will die. There will be temptation, conflict, agony and the passion. But Herod, Rome and all who oppose the Son of God will lose. God will win. The decree of God, “Thou art my Son; this Day have I begotten thee,” will trump the decree of Caesar. In fact, the decree of Caesar that all the world should be taxed, is already being used by God for the fulfillment of prophesy. For the prophet Micah had said that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (5:2). Caesar’s decree is the means by which God makes it happens.
Christmas is the beginning of our story in Christ. The collect draws a parallel between the Incarnation and our baptism. In the Incarnation, God’s Son took our nature upon him and was born of a pure virgin. Through baptism and faith, we are regenerate and become God’s adopted children. Jesus is God natural and eternally begotten Son. We have become God’s children by adoption and grace.
Through baptism and faith, God enters into our story. This means that a victorious outcome is assured in our lives as well. Life “in Christ” provides no promise of freedom from suffering, temptation, conflict or death. Life in Christ simply promises that none of these things will defeat us. We will win. In Christ, we will conquer our enemies and rise from the dead—just as Christ conquered every enemy and rose on Easter.
This is the confidence of faith that is expressed in Magnificat. Mary, barely pregnant with the Son of God, proclaims, “He hath put down the mighty from their seats and hath exalted the humble and meek” (Luke 1:46-55). It hasn’t really happened yet, but now that God is in the story it is as if it is already done. The victory is possessed by faith.
We live through the life and triumph of Christ as we fast and feast our way through the calendar. Now the Word is made flesh. Soon we will remember again how Christ is revealed to us during Epiphany. We will fast, pray and fight the spiritual battle with Christ in Lent. And we will rise again with him on Easter. This movement from Christmas to Easter is the essence of all of life in Christ. We live through our battles knowing that Easter is coming. Victory is guaranteed now that God is with us. This confidence is not cockiness or wishful thinking. God has spoken, and it will come to pass.
Christmas invites us to put renewed faith in the Son of God; to begin to live “in Christ” and participate in the victory of God that begins at Christmas. Come! Feast and fast with the church through year as we live in Christ and look forward to Easter. Come and experience the power of the Incarnation, which is, “Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:27).