Summary: Christ is victorious over the world from the moment of His birth.
There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should
be enrolled,…and all went to be registered, every one into his own city.
[Lk 2: 1,3]
It’s a story about a census, the most well-known story about a census in the world - perhaps the only one.
Well there is one other I can think of. Emily Wilding Davison spent the night off 1st April 1911 locked in a broom cupboard. Now, why? Davison was prominent among the Suffragettes, campaigning for the right of women to vote in elections, but also - and this is often forgotten - to sit as Members of Parliament. She resisted, that is, the usual prejudice of the time, which was to the effect that no women should be allowed in the House of Commons. And so she spent that night, the night before the census day, having locked herself in that broom cupboard in the Palace of Westminster, in order to be able honestly to give her address on the census form as “House of Commons”.
And this joke became one of the great publicity feats of her cause - which is why we still remember it. It’s not a laugh-out-loud kind of a joke, but the more we ponder it the more it excites our admiration, for the wit of the woman who played it, and for the subtle, even the paradoxical way in which its very pointlessness lends weight to her passionately-held point.
And so we turn to our Bibles, and to our story, and we find that God, too, has been playing a cosmic joke upon the world of men; a joke which Luke has seen even as he begins to tell it.
It’s a story about a census. Caesar Augustus wants to tax all the inhabitants of his empire. Now we ought to pause and see that although “Caesar Augustus” is the name of an particular emperor (the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, and also known to us as Octavian) this way of describing him is significant. Because “Caesar Augustus” means literally “the great emperor”, a fitting title for the ruler of the whole known world.
And he wants to tax the whole world, and as a first step there is to be a census. And the organising principle of the census is to be that every one is to go to “his own city” to be enrolled, to the place, that is, where his paternal ancestors came from. Accordingly, Luke says, Joseph went to Bethlehem, the city of David, because he was descended through his father from David.
And I wonder if you can see the joke coming. Joseph, with his family, having quite properly obeyed the decree, arrive in Bethlehem, and Jesus is born. He is born, in all likelihood, on the first night of their arrival, the night when they have to find their accommodation, because, as we know, they have are still in that inadequate accommodation when he arrives.
Jesus is born into the world, then, in time to be enrolled, himself included in this census, the organising principle of which is, as we remember, the identity of one’s father. And I think you begin to see the problem, and the joke.
Because as both Joseph and Mary are well aware, one of the unique things about the new baby is that he hasn’t really got a father; not, at any rate, one whose name could sensibly appear on the census return. So what can Joseph and Mary honestly say to the census-taker?