Thinking of a joyous celebration of Christmas with family and friends this year feels a bit strange. At least it does for those of us here in Melbourne. We have lived through the hard slog of now 6 lockdowns, some of them so long I have heard some people have forgotten how to drive are tentative and the roads are now more dangerous.
But now freedoms allow us to gather – although we have learnt to hold plans lightly, so arrangements are all dependent on the forecasts regarding the invisible virus that has dictated the shape of our lives for the past eighteen months.
Yet we have opened up and so we live in hope. And accept invitations with provisos.
It has made me think of what the first Christmas must have been like. Luke’s Gospel tells us that it was governed by a command from the powers that be…. and that a “decree went out from Caesar Augustus….and all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city. And Joseph, also went up from Galilee…to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David.” Personal freedom is great to have but it did not exist in the time of Jesus’ birth under Imperial Rome. And the absence of individual freedom and democracy has not held back the spread of Christianity – if anything its absence has enhanced the grace of God as there is a more significant freedom being offered that is much bigger than Rome.
Human existence is always a balancing act of personal freedom, and the obligation I have to others.
Like most of us Melburnians Joseph and Mary compliantly followed the dictates, not even claiming the exemption of an imminent birth, or the need for a ‘carer’. They did what the powers that be dictated. Others such as the Zealots may have protested. Or formed communities of objection such as that community which occurred at Masada.
Over human history personal freedoms have always been subject to laws. Some have been draconian; they have seen racial groups displaced, or even worse killed en masse. Other mandated laws such as the wearing seat belts in cars, and having to install fences around swimming pools in back yards of our ‘sovereign homes’ are for the safety of human lives, especially vulnerable lives.
Human existence is always a balancing act of personal freedom, and the obligation I have to others. Jesus was born into a human context that exemplified both. Joseph would have been tempted to walk away from his pregnant fiancé but he took responsibility for another. He made sure they followed the political dictates of the ruling power. There was nothing to be gained for him personally through doing this – in fact, as it turned out it was personally costly and the birth of their son was precarious in the extreme. Nevertheless he did what he was obliged to do.
And in the midst of their lived experience God was at work. By obeying the powers of the land they journeyed to Joseph’s town of birth, sleepy Bethlehem. The prophecy of the Micah fulfilled: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah…from you shall come forth for me one who is to be a ruler in Israel.” (Micah 5:2) God worked in ways that were both spiritually and emotionally significant. There was a place for these travelers to rest, however humble it was. They were provided for. There were portents that went out heralding the significance of this birth. Shepherds heard angels and wise men followed a star. This child was born into a story of time and place; immortalized in the most magnificent of all stories.
Indeed, God was at work in wondrous ways. Even in the midst of the constraints of the powers that be.