Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church Budapest, Hungary Isaiah 9:2-7 Titus 2:11-14 Luke 2:1-14-20; Psalm 96 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. According to those who have time on their hands to track such things, the most searched term online in Hungary in 2022 was, of all things, not the war next-door in Ukraine nor the World Cup, but the national census which took place this past October and November; perhaps because it involved quite literally everyone who lived in Hungary at the time, all 9,599,858 of us, to be exact. This year’s census could be completed online, by the way, if you did it right, which might also help explain the large number of online searches. Better to get it done right online the first time, one supposes, and avoid an annoying home visit from a census enumerator. The census also included a raft of new questions about everything from the energy efficiency of one ‘s home to one’s health status, religious identity, languages spoken, and ethnic background. Some people were suspicious of the new queries, although most of them were optional. Still, I think the whole thing went smoothly enough. At least, I have not heard of any riots or demonstrations against the census. And besides, virtually all countries nowadays engage in periodic censuses. Indeed, census-taking has a long history. I am not sure anyone really knows when the very first one took place, but they are recorded as far back as the Babylonian Empire millennia ago. Back then, the amount of livestock and foodstuffs on-hand seems to have been the main concern, not home insulation. The Romans of course also engaged in census-taking, as our account this morning from the Gospel of Luke attests. The primary objective of Roman censuses seems to have been increased taxation, making them and their enumerators quite unpopular indeed. And there actually does seem to have been a census taken around the time of the birth of our Lord, but Luke alas gets a few things about it wrong. Or at least turns things around a bit to suit his theological purposes. The “registration,” as it is translated here into English, was not for instance a universal census of the entire world, as Luke would have it; an impossible task in any event; but rather a local one, staged in certain parts of Palestine. And the Romans, as far as the historians can tell, did not require people to leave home to be counted. But then, no online options either.
By the way, the census around the time of the birth of our Lord actually did cause riots, since it required paying taxes in coins with the graven image of the Emperor on them; something anathema to devout Jews. No telling of course, at this great remove, whether the ancient Roman establishment in first-century Palestine was nearly as thorough or efficient as the contemporary Hungarian census enumerators. So, we will never know for sure if the Baby Jesus got his Roman National Health Insurance card or perhaps his TAJ-szám kartya, since many of my Hungarian friends assure me that Jesus was indeed Hungarian. Whether it is ultimately significant or not that Jesus should have been born in the midst of a census or head-count is a question best left to seminary professors and perhaps ordinands, though I tend to think it is in fact very important. Why else, after all, would Luke make such a big deal out of it, going out of his way to give us the precise details, as he understands them, of this census: its genesis, and its consequences to the birth of our Lord...? Luke’s universal census, it seems to me, reminds us that the universal message of the Incarnation, and of the Gospel, is for everyone. That is, no one is left out in the census of God’s Kingdom come. No matter their status in this world, all return to their true homeland; all travel the royal highway back to Bethlehem; back to their spiritual roots. All are counted, and all are accounted for. In God’s Kingdom, which our Lord came to proclaim, everyone matters. That in fact is why we are here this morning once again to be counted; counted among the shepherds, villagers, and voyagers gathered at the local inn at Bethlehem. Jesus was in a sense no one special in the world of his day. For the Roman authorities, he was just one more Roman numeral; one more infant with bleak prospects in life born outside a small and dusty village in a small and obscure corner of a vast and mighty Empire. But yet, as improbable as it may seem, his birth is on the other hand very special indeed and matters infinitely. “A multitude of the heavenly host,” no precise angelic census or head-count is mentioned in the text, “a multitude of the heavenly host” sings the Lord’s praises and announces peace to the world, a precious gift back then and again now; nowhere more than here in Central and Eastern Europe. In Luke’s telling, it seems to me, the birth of our Lord becomes a census of a new kind; a census count of exactly one. “To you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour,” an angel announces to the shepherds, “a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.” There is no other. The paradox and contradiction of Christ’s singular birth remains with us still to this day. How is it, we might well ask, that a child born to such circumstances as was Jesus should nevertheless be the Messiah, the Saviour...? Yet if the Messiah, the Lord, is unique; the implication is surely that we are unique as well, that we matter as did he; that we matter infinitely. After all, in some sense it was for our sake that he was born at all. Not for unwashed and uncounted masses of humanity. But for
you and me. And for the hard-to-count outliers born even this Christmas Day and every day in sheds or huts across the globe. In the Lord’s upside-down calculus, the census count is not 9.6 million or even eight billion. It is one. The very familiarity and charm of Luke’s narrative of our Lord’s birth ought not blind us to its revolutionary and radical significance and meaning. Our Lord was born among us, among his people, in the midst of a registration encompassing the whole world. He came in a sense to teach us that we, well, count; that we are indeed brother and sister to one another, no matter our circumstances; no matter our birth; no matter our passport. In the Incarnation we become one people: the people of God, the people of the Kingdom. And how do we know this is so...? Very simple. “This will be a sign for you,” Luke has the angel tells the shepherds and us, “you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." That sign remains as powerful and telling today as it was two thousand years ago. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs