Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord
I hope you are all comfortable in your pews. On a night like this, I would offer hot cocoa and cookies, but that wouldn't be appropriate in this setting. I realize the bench-like construction may make them a little uncomfortable, so try to get as comfortable as possible. Honestly, I want you to be comfortable because I'm going to tell you A Christmas Story.
Once upon a time, there lived a man named Gaius Octavian. He was born into a noble family; his father was a senator, yet his mother was even more distinguished. Her name was Julia, and she was a sister to someone we have all heard about: Julius Caesar.
Octavian was a short man, but handsome. He was kind and very intelligent. Though he was cruel when young, he grew up into a milder man: he grew up to possess an admirable quality—grace. There was hardly a time when he wouldn't seek to use kindness in dealing with people. He was tolerant of criticism, possessed a good sense of humor, and had a particular fondness for playing dice, but often provided his guests with money to place bets.
Octavian served in the Roman army. He was a soldier under his uncle's command in Rome's expedition into Spain. In fact, at the tender age of 18, he was given command of the army in Rome's Parthian expedition. It was while on this expedition that his uncle was assassinated; he returned immediately to Rome to find that Julius Caesar had adopted him as his son in his will—he was now a Julian.
Through a series of events, Octavian found favor in the eyes of the Roman senate and the Roman people. His deceased uncle, who through adoption became his father, was deified—proclaimed to be a god. This also heightened Octavian's standing, so much so that he wished to use the name Caesar, no longer wishing to be addressed by his given name, and he styled himself as a son of a god. In addition to favor, Octavian found himself with a lot of power, as well. As his favor continued to increase, so did the power he was granted by the people through the senate. He would eventually have as much power and more than the senate itself, in fact, he became the first Roman emperor. He would also eventually receive the title pater patriae, or "Father of the Country" to go along with other titles he was given: pontifex maximus which is "High Priest" and princeps which is "First Citizen" or "First-Born."
We know Octavian better by a different name. This is a name he assumed a few years before becoming emperor. It is a name that roughly translates as "sacred" or "revered." We know him better as Augustus.
This story is true. You can read it in any history book that covers ancient Roman history. And it is for this reason that it is included in our Christmas story, because it, too, is a true story:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.
Our story of Christmas takes place during the reign of Augustus as emperor. Syria and the middle-east, including Israel, was part of the Roman empire—they were under the rule of Augustus and his appointed governors (at this time, Quirinius).
In our story there is also a man named Joseph. He was a carpenter by trade, a craftsman. He lived in northern Israel, in a region called Galilee, a town called Nazareth. It was a small town, much like ours, that were it not for our story, would not appear on any map. He was betrothed to marry a young girl by the name of Mary, who was already pregnant.
Now, because Mary was pregnant and Joseph was not yet officially married to her (betrothal in those days was tantamount to marriage), he sought to quietly divorce her, because he was a righteous man. He wanted to break away from his commitment to her, but do so quietly without causing too much of a raucous, without embarrassing either of them. But an angel of God appeared to him in a dream to urge him not to divorce her, but stay with her and help her raise the child. God said to him, "[W]hat is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
God had previously sent Gabriel, his angel, to Mary to tell her that she had been chosen to bear God's Son. He said to her, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." But at this, she was afraid. He continued, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
So, God had chosen the couple who would bear and raise His Son. There is no specific reason why they were chosen, other than to hear the words that tell us that Joseph was a righteous man, and Mary had found high favor with God.
Anyway, Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, the city of their ancestor, David the King of Israel. It was there that they had to register for Augustus' census, because it was the law to register for the census in one's hometown. While they were there, the time came for Mary to give birth. Now, because it was the time of the census, there were no rooms left in any inns or relatives' houses; the only shelter they could find was a stable—probably a cave on the outskirts of town. So, she wrapped him in cloths to keep him warm, and laid him in a manger, which is a trough that animals eat out of. God's Son was born! God's real Son was born, not the son of a man proclaimed to be God, like Augustus. He was found in fashion as a human—he was a little baby that could be held and squeezed and fed and loved. And Mary and Joseph did just that!
But the excitement of the story doesn't end there. As there were caves around Bethlehem that were used as stables, it stands to reason that there are animals and animal farmers around Bethlehem as well. Shepherds were tending their flocks, minding their business-as-usual routine when an angel of God appeared to them in bright majesty and glory and proclaimed to them the good news of God's Son being born. It was God's birthday, and He wanted people to know, so He told people who would listen and people He knew would want to see what had been told to them and spread word about it. He told people who knew the depth of their sin and how much they needed a savior:
Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
And if that wasn't enough, the one angel was joined by many, many others and they continued to celebrate God's birthday: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests."
Once the sky darkened again, the shepherds got up, and found their way to the cave that Joseph and Mary were using as shelter. Therein, they found a baby lying in a manger, just as they were told. Excited that salvation was among them, they spread word of what they had seen—of the angels and of the Son of God—and amazed many people. It is very possible that many whom they told also went to the cave and saw the miraculous Christ-child.
Now, many people would end A Christmas Story right there, but the story doesn't end there. Oh no! Astronomers from Persia would come to visit him, bringing gifts of perfume and gold. This child that was born in a barn would grow up to be a man of fine stature. He would go through childhood years as any and every person does, making friends, playing with them, losing them. At a very young age, He was once found in the temple teaching the teachers! As He was growing up, His step-father, Joseph, taught him carpentry, and He would take up the craft. He would see the fall of Augustus as emperor and the rise of his successor, Tiberius.
As an adult, however, he gave up carpentry and became a traveling teacher. He acquired a large gathering of followers, twelve of whom are named specifically. He would be baptized by His cousin, at which time His Father's voice proclaimed Jesus to be His Son, anointed to bear the sin of the world. For three years, He traveled the countryside of Judea and Samaria, teaching people, healing diseases, curing blindness and deafness, casting out demons—forgiving sins and proclaiming the salvation of God!
After those three years, He made His way to Jerusalem, where the God's House is located, to the place where lambs were sacrificed. There, He worked in another role He had: High Priest. He did this, not in any priestly capacity that Augustus assumed, but in the fact that He was Himself the Lamb that was sacrificed. He was sacrificed to make atonement for the sins of the shepherds who found Him as an infant and told the story. He was sacrificed to make atonement for the sins of His mother and step-father. He was sacrificed even to make atonement for the sins of the Caesars and the Roman people. He was sacrificed to make atonement for our sins, too! And in that sacrifice, He took to Himself a bride, the Church, and His Father became the pater ecclesia, or Father of the Church. Baptized into Christ, we are a part of that Bride!
The Son of God also rose from the dead. Forty days after that, He returned to His Father in Heaven. One day, He will return to earth. One day, He will come to claim His bride. This is a true story! Those of us who are a part of that Bride will then, with Him, live eternally, happily ever after.
There is no end!