The first enormity is that Caesar Augustus makes a decree that all the world is to be registered and taxed. All the world! And so it was. A conversation perhaps took place in Rome. “We need more money.” “How can we tax them more?” “Do we even know who there is to tax?” “Ok, let’s find out. Let’s order a universal census.” And so it happens. Inconveniently for Mary and Joseph. But that is the world on that night: the world of power goes about counting its money and paying its bills.
The second enormity was that there was no human habitation where a young woman could give birth to her first baby. Nobody let them in. Nobody apparently cared. Contrasting with the power of Caesar Augustus and the workaday world, is the powerlessness of Joseph. His wife had to give birth to the most unusually conceived child and the future king of Israel in circumstances that would have made any of us angry. How can people be so indifferent and selfish? They were being crunched by Rome, standing in line all day perhaps, exhausted from traveling, unready to help. Everybody had problems.
The third enormity is that of the shepherds. These were not of the upper crust. What is the least likely place that you would think of today to send a troop of angels for the announcement of the world’s most important event and the most splendid worship service recorded on this planet? How about to a fast-food restaurant, where the employees are taking a smoke break in the back after closing and before getting down to the cleaning? There is something improbable about giving the message to the least likely people, but that is who these shepherds were. “To you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior.” In Rome, the geese were silent—not knowing an invasion had begun—and the crickets chirped.
And that is the tale of three enormities. God comes in the night, the angels make no announcement to the distant powerful and mighty, with their braziers and mulled wine, but to those who slept under the stars, to the dispossessed. God works otherwise, God does otherwise, God is not coming to the palaces of Rome, so busy waiting for the world to be taxed. Do you wonder if the shepherds made the census? No matter if they did, who cares about that universal act of government bureaucracy which made the world unsettled and uncomfortable? The shepherds came to the manger, and that is what the story focuses on, because that is where what matters happened.