By Pastor Glenn Pease
One of the great paradoxes of Christmas is that almost everything the Bible tells us about this most sacred event, is secular in nature. It is filled with what is temporal rather than eternal; physical rather than spiritual; and world oriented rather than heaven oriented. Christmas is really a very earthly event. This was by design, of course, for it marks the beginning of God's personal involvement in the flesh on this earthly level of reality. When God became man he went all the way, and participated fully in the secular realm common to all men.
Just being born of a woman was as commonplace as it gets, for this is the universal experience of all men. The Buddhist, the atheist, the cultist, and every other type of person, comes into this world by the same method Jesus came. Birth does not take place in a sacred setting, but in a secular setting, such as a hospital or the home. In the case of Jesus, the setting was even more secular than usual, for he was born in a stable. It is also a very secular job to be running an inn, and keeping up a stable, and shepherding sheep. Taking the census was also very secular, along with paying taxes. The point is the whole setting of the first Christmas is a secular setting. There is not a priest, rabbi, prophet, or preacher anywhere on the scene. The angels do appear to the shepherds in the field and add the heavenly involvement to the story, and the star is seen by the wise men afar, but the fact is, most of what we see is simply secular.
Some of the secular props on the stage of history during this greatest of dramas have played a important role. The church fathers considered the wise men to have been Persians. In 614 A. D. when the Persians invaded and conquered the Holy Land, they did not destroy the oldest church in the world-the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The reason was because they saw on the golden mosaic over the doorway the wise men depicted as Persians with their native headdress. This was the only holy site they did not attack. This trivial secular detail changed the course of history, as far as this site of the birth of Jesus goes. Without it, the church could have been destroyed. The trivial can play a tremendous role in history. Never underestimate the impact of the seemingly insignificant.
The book, The Ugly American, is about an ugly-faced American engineer, Homer Atkins. He was brought to Vietnam to build dams and roads. While he was there he solved a century old problem by designing a bicycle treadmill pump. No longer did the women have to carry water in pails up the hillside to water the paddies. His wife Emma then made this suggestion, for she was concerned about the fact that every woman over 60 had a bent back. The broom the women used had such a short handle, because wood was expensive and in short supply. Emma discovered a long stock reed and planted some near her door. Then she bound coconut fronds to one of the long reeds she cut. She invited women to her house to see her sweep with a long handled broom. It caught on, and years later when Homer and Emma were living back in Pittsburgh, they received a letter from the villagers, part of which went like this-
"In the village of Chang 'Dong today, the backs of
our people are straight and firm. No longer
are their bodies painful and bent. You will be
pleased to know that on the outskirts of the
village we have constructed a small shrine in
your memory... At the foot are these words:
'In memory of the woman who unbent the backs
of our people.' "
Her concern about such a trivial thing as the length of broom handles had a significant impact on the life of a whole people.
As we approach another Christmas it is of interest to focus on some of the trivial secular details the Bible records about this event. We will see that trivia could be called significa. Significa are the small and minor matters which, nevertheless, have great impact and influence. Every trivial thing that Jesus touched He transformed into significa.
A cradle was a lowly thing
And held of little worth
Till Jesus in a cradle slept
When first he came to earth.
A woman was a chattel owned
To pamper, scorn, or sell
Till Jesus proffered Living Truth
To one at Jacob's well.
A child? Just one more mouth to feed!
Not held in high esteem
Till Jesus made a little lad
The center of his Theme.
The lowliest death there was to die
Was nailing to a tree:
Aloft his followers hold the Cross-
Symbol of Victory!
-Stella Fisher Burgess.
We are to live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, but sometimes they seem so trivial we tend to ignore them. Christmas trivia is a good example. Dr. Luke was a man of detail, and he records for us a number of things that can be called Christmas trivia, but which upon examination become Christmas significa. Take his mention of Caesar Augustus, for example.
There have been few leaders in history who have been so loved by their followers that they celebrated their birthday with festivities spread over two days. But the first character on the stage of the Christmas story was just such a man. Augustus was one of the greatest leaders of history. His birth was the biggest until the birthday of Jesus surpassed it. People of all ranks in life would bring money presents to the capital, and Augustus would use the money to promote religion in Rome.
Augustus was a deeply religious man in a world that had gone sour on religion. The average roman citizen had abandoned the gods, and had become skeptical. Augustus was determined to bring about a revival of religion, and moral renewal. He restored 82 temples in the city of Rome alone, and built temples and shrines all over the Empire.
He fought to strengthen the traditional family. Men had forsaken marriage, and were being promiscuous. The sensual life-style had caused the population to fall. He passed laws that made promiscuity a crime, and which rewarded men who married and had three children. He fought immorality on the stage, and promoted good entertainment. He was fighting the very battles that Christians are fighting in our culture today.
He was far from perfect, and did some brutal things in his reign, but he held his power and reigned for 44 years, because he was a man for the people. He was just and merciful and did all he could to meet the needs of the poor. He sold government surplus at very cheap rates, and sometimes even gave them away.
He was able to establish an empire where there was peace and prosperity for 55 million people. He did not believe in fighting wars just to prove he was stronger, like many rulers before and after him. He said those who take great risks in battle for some small advantage are like a man who fishes with a golden hook. Nothing he could catch would be worth the loss of the hook.
He was a man of peace, and when he did conquer a nation, he allowed their own people to continue as their leaders, and he formed friendly relationships by means of intermarriage, just as Solomon did. He was greatly loved, and when he went on a tour of the Empire, his homecomings were events of great celebration. The people and the Senate agreed he should be given the title that Americans gave to Washington-The Father of His Country. When the Senate so proclaimed him, he responded with tears in his eyes and said, "Fathers of the Senate, I have at last achieved my highest ambition. What more can I ask of the immortal gods than that they may permit me to enjoy your approval until my dying day?" This wish was granted.
He was a pagan emperor, yet he is the first character in the Christmas story, because the God of the universe decided to honor him with the role of making a decree that led to the birth of His Son in Bethlehem. This Son was coming into a world that Augustus had prepared. It was a world where peace was more widespread than war; where justice for all men was practiced; where the world was one, and people could travel with comparative safety, making the spread of the Gospel possible.
God honored this great pagan ruler by giving him a role in the greatest story ever told. Our culture honors him also by naming one of the twelve months of the year after him-August. He named this month himself and did it on august 19. When Augustus died in 14 A. D., Jesus was about 19 years old. These were the silent years of His life, and Augustus probably did not even know about Jesus, for He had not yet begun His public ministry. But Jesus as a 19 year old knew of him. Augustus was the emperor of the empire in which Jesus was a citizen. Jesus as a carpenter had to pay taxes to this man, and support his causes. When Jesus said render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, He had done so himself for years.
Augustus played a role in the birth of Jesus, and in the kind of world He would grow up in, and Jesus played a role in his life by inspiring Dr. Luke to include him in the Christmas story. There were dozens of possible ways God could have gotten the prophesy fulfilled of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem, but He chose to use Augustus, and make his name famous for the rest of history.
It is even possible that Augustus did know about Jesus. Herod was the King of Judea when Jesus was born, and Herod was a friend of Augustus. Herod was on the side of Anthony and Cleopatra, but when Augustus defeated them Herod quickly pleaded for forgiveness. He brought large gifts to Rome, and won the favor of Augustus, and they became close personal friends. There was frequent correspondence between Herod and Augustus. Herod as the ruler of the Jews was able to persuade Augustus to give Jews some special privileges in certain parts of the world. Augustus, therefore, knew about the Jews and their religious practices. We know this because we have some of the letters that Augustus wrote himself. In one of them that he wrote to Tiberius he says, "Not even a Jew fasts so scrupulously on his Sabbaths, as I have done today. Not until dusk had fallen did I touch a thing, and that was at the baths, before I had my oil rub, when I swallowed two mouthfuls of bread."
Augustus knew about the Jews, no doubt, because of the close relationship he had with Herod. The two sons of Herod, Antipas and Archelaus, grew up in Rome, and when Herod died it was Augustus who settled the disputes between them. He divided the Kingdom giving them each part. This Archelaus was the King over Judea when Joseph and Mary and the child Jesus came back out of Egypt.
The point is, the close contact and communication of Augustus with Herod and his family would leave the door open for possible communication about the birth of one called the King of the Jews. Herod was greatly disturbed and all of Jerusalem with him. He took brutal action in trying to kill this new born King by killing the babies of Bethlehem. This sort of thing makes news, and so if Augustus did not hear of it from Herod, it is likely he heard of it by the grapevine. All of this does not prove that he knew of the birth of Jesus, but it shows the fascinating relationship of all the people involved in the Christmas story.
The coming of Jesus was so humble and quiet, and yet it was an international event involving the decree of Augustus 1500 miles away in Rome, and the King of Judea. The whole world was involved even though no one could know the impact of what was going on. Augustus could never know that his death in 767 AUC, that is from the founding of Rome, would for all of history be changed to 14 A. D. in honor of the birth of that baby in Bethlehem that his decree got to that place. He could not know that his birthday would fade, and that the birthday of this obscure child born in an obscure part of the Empire, would become the greatest universal celebration the world would ever know.
Augustus left his mark on history for all time. On the day of his death at age 75 he kissed his wife and said, "Good by, Livia, never forget whose wife you have been!" He died almost at once. He died in September, but in honor of Augustus they changed the month to August, and pushed the whole year ahead. It was a radical change for a man who had radically changed the world.
It was no accident that a man like Augustus was on the stage of history at the time of the Incarnation. It was in the fullness of time that God sent forth His Son to be born of a woman. God selected this time and this place, and in His providence a man like Augustus was the ruler of the earthly kingdom. The value of this whole history is that it helps us see that God had it all planned. Even the secular world was uniquely prepared for the coming of His Son. It was a unique time in secular history, and would become the most unique in sacred history. But the two were not in opposition, but were united by the providence of God. God used the secular decree of Augustus to fulfill prophecy, and thus, we see God is not the God of the sacred only, but the God of the secular as well. It is a challenge to try and recognize God in the secular realm, for He is often hidden, and we tend to miss Him, and do not see that He is involved. The Christmas story so combines the sacred and the secular that we get a good look at how God is involved in both.
In verse 7 we see Mary wrapped Jesus in cloths, and laid him in a manger. Here was the first garment of the Son of God in the flesh, and it was not a garment of royalty or some special anointed cloth from the priest. It was a common every day piece of cloth that would be used for any baby. It was as secular as a modern day diaper. Jesus was sinless, but he still had to wear the garments of fallen man. Adam in his sinlessness was naked and needed no covering. Jesus was sinless, but he identified with fallen man the moment he entered the world, and was clothed with this secular garment. As far as the record goes, Jesus never wore a sacred garment in his life. He had a beautiful seemless robe, and it became as bright as light on the Mt. of Transfiguration. The soldiers gambled for it at the cross. But their is no record that Jesus ever wore anything but secular clothes. He never became a priest, but was a layman all his life. He wore the garments of the typical man of his day.
Jesus was wrapped up in cloth right out of the womb, and wrapped up again in cloth before he was laid in the tomb. Jesus spent his earthly life, just like you and me, in being protected and warmed by clothing. This minor detail at his birth makes it clear that he would have suffered chills and possibly a rash from the straw, without the protection of the cloth. This detail makes it clear that Jesus needed all of the secular care of any other baby. He needed to be kept clean and warm, and so Mary had to do everything for Jesus that she did for her other children. He did not live with a halo around His head, and all Mary had to do was pray and everything would be done. It was work, like all motherhood is, for Mary to raise Jesus. Christmas trivia like this makes the reality of the Incarnation come alive. It forces you to see God really did become flesh and dwell among us. Let's look at another trivial detail.
NO ROOM. This tiny bit of Christmas trivia has motivated the use of oceans of ink in speculating about the inn keeper. But what it really tells us is that God did not send His Son into the world with special privileges. He had to come as one of the rest of us, and endure a world where there is no end to inconveniences. God never promised us a rose garden, and He never promised it even to His only Son. Jesus had to put up with more of the problems of secular living than most of us. It is easy to get sentimental about the first Christmas, because of the Christmas songs and idyllic Christmas cards. But the fact is, Jesus came into this world during the rush hour, and it was a mess. There were no special express lanes open for Him and His parents. They just had to put up with the inconvenience and make the best of it.
When you drive into a town late at night, and you are tired, and all you see is no vacancy on the motels, you are not being picked on. You are in the best company, for even this first family in the Kingdom of God had the same experience. The sooner we learn it the better off we will be. God does not give His children special privileges in the secular world. Jesus had to have reservations or be turned away. Jesus had to sleep or be miserably tired. Jesus had to pay taxes and walk dusty roads to get anywhere. Just about any secular thing you have to do, Jesus had to do. He became a common man, and not one who could skip the inconveniences of life. This is the message of the no room in the inn. Nobody was trying to be unkind to Jesus or His parents. This was just the real world where we all have to live.
I discovered an interesting poem to help us see just where other Bible personalities are in relation to the baby Jesus on that first Christmas. Keith Preston writes,
Peter was a fisher boy
helping with the haul;
Pilot was a shavetail
Leading troops in Gaul.
Judas was as innocent
As little child can be;
The wood that made the crucifix
Was still a growing tree;
Unminted was the silver
That made the traitor's pay;
And none had yet commercialized
The spirit of the day.
It is true, the day was not commercialized because nobody knew of it's significance, but it is superficial to imply that human nature was different then. No doubt, if Joseph had been richer, or had been a dignitary representing Rome, he could have gotten a room. Bribery worked in Bethlehem, I am sure, and greed was no less alive than it is now. There is no point in trying to idealize the first Christmas, for the whole idea of Christmas trivia is to make it clear that Jesus was born into the same fallen secular world we all live in. He was not a privileged character, but had the same problems we do, and had to be taken into exile in Egypt soon after He was born. In His adult life, He said the birds have nests and the foxes have holes, but the Son of man has no where to lay His head. Jesus was away from home most of His life. He is still looking for a place to stay in our lives.
"Oh, my brothers, are we wiser,
Are we better now than they?
Have we any room for Jesus
In the life we live today?
Room for pleasures-doors wide open
And for business, but for Him
Only here and there a manger
Like to that of Bethlehem." Author unknown
If you look to Christmas, expecting it to be a spectacular event that will lift you to the peak of ecstasy, you'll probably be setting yourself up for a fall. Christmas trivia tells us to look instead for the blessings in small packages. The trivial details of commonplace life are where we will find our greatest pleasures. There will be inconvenience, untimely travel, bad weather, no room, missed connections, diapers, and spilled eggnog, and a list that could go on and on. This Christmas will be no different than the first one, and we will not escape the realities of a fallen world anymore than did the Christ-child and His parents. But, now as then, God will be working in the midst of all the Christmas trivia to accomplish His purpose in our lives.
The best preparation for Christmas is to look for God in the trivial, and the secular, and be thankful for the blessings of the commonplace. Do not demand of God what His only Son never got, but surrender to Christ and ask Him to fill you with His Spirit, that you might see significance in contemporary Christmas trivia.