Caesar Augustus issued a decree and set the whole world moving. What power there is in a word. Caesar speaks and everyone is uprooted. They all return to their native place. Caesar's word calls people back to their roots.
Caesar has a purpose. He wants the whole world to be numbered. He is counting his people. He wants their money. These people are not named, they are to be numbered. Their stories are not important. Who they are does not matter. What they can provide does. What they represent is an economic resource. A decree from Ceasar. Word comes from Rome. An order comes from the centre of power to the margins, and the whole world moves. Caesar finds himself at the still centre of this turning world.
Mary and Joseph move too. They return to David's town because that is where Joseph's family started. David was a shepherd, just like those in tonight's gospel. The Lord took him from the obscurity of minding sheep and placed him at the centre of his people. David built a new city for his God, Jerusalem. It was the centre of every pious Jew's life, for it was there that God dwelt in the midst of his people. David, the marginal character, became the cornerstone of his people.
David also had an interest in numbering his people. In chapter twenty-four of the Second Book of Samuel, we are told that he decided to count the people of Israel. His generals and his advisers wanted him against this. The people belonged to God, the land belonged to God, and not to David. The people were instruments of God's purpose, they were not economic units, or chattels to be sent hither and thither and yon by any earthly king.
David learnt his lesson when a plague fell on Israel as a result of his presumption. David thought that he was the centre, the sole centre, the still point of a world which his policies turned. St Luke is telling us that Caesar, secure in his palace, does not realise that the centre of the world is changed in the Incarnation, the world spins off its axis, as He through whom all things were made is born in David's town and laid in a manger. The feast of Christmas calls us all back to our origins.
The first to see this wonder are the shepherds. Mary, Joseph and the child have nowhere to lay their heads. There was no room for them in the inn. The Son of Man can find no lodging. He came to his own and his own received him not. The shepherds too have no permanent place to lay their heads. They were literally 'passing the night in the open'. They were outsiders. Central to their lives was their job. There was nowhere else to go for failed shepherds. Yet the shepherds, those who keep their eyes skinned, who live out in the open, who are outsiders, see the angel and the glory of the Lord. Their masters are sound asleep in their beds in David's town, having turned the Lord of Glory from their doors. The shepherds see and in seeing understand. The outsiders are not bound.
They do a stange thing. They say, "Let us go and see this wonder." They went in haste, speedily. They forgot their flocks. They forgot their jobs. The fragile security of their profession was left behind them. The centre of their lives changed. It was no longer focussed on vulnerable flocks of sheep, on a wind-swept hillside in the dark of night, depending on the patronage of wealthier men. The centre of their lives was not their job, it was not Jerusalem, it was not Rome, it was a manger at which beasts were fed, which was transformed into the throne of the Lord of Glory. And they went back praising and glorifying God for all that they had seen. The periphery had become the centre.
To live in faith seems tough in a world which no longer resonates to the songs and symbols of heavenly glory. Christians, as they make their way to church Sunday by Sunday, festival by festival, when their neighbours are sleeping, doing their shopping or washing their cars, can feel that they are eccentric, the odd ones out, outsiders. That journey is a lonely journey.
The Christmas gospel shows us that it was ever thus. The shepherds, the outsiders, the eccentrics, make their way to the manger of the infant king, not the king who sits in Rome, imagining that he is the axis on which the world turns. They come to worship the Incarnate Word, the real presence of God amongst us. What is off-beam? What is off-centre in this story? The world at whose centre Caesar sits or the world which is ruled from the manger? The shepherds went back glorifying God for all that they had heard and seen. The eccentrics had found their true centre.