"Keep the Quirinius in Christmas"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
In late November, my family and I had the opportunity to attend the annual Courtenay Holiday parade. It was our second year, and we always have a great time. And, like any other parade there are people running along the sidewalk. Handing out candy, stickers and brochures to the crowd. This is the most exciting part for my kids, even if someone hands them a coupon for orthopedic shoes. They just love free stuff.
And so this one float comes around the corner. And there’s nice pre-teen girl with a huge smile on her face running down the side of the sidewalk. She’s handing out stickers, and she reaches out to hand one to this little boy beside us. He’s all excited. He’s about five years old or so, so he’s not quite old enough to read yet. His mom is excited, too. “What’s it say?!” she asks, big smile on her face. He hands it up to her. She takes a couple seconds to read it. And that smile just sort of drops off her face. “Oh,” she says. “Keep Christ in Christmas.”
And you know, I’m sympathetic to the message. Christian minister, church, lover of the Bible and all. But I could tell that the whole “keep Christ in Christmas” bumper-sticker thing probably didn’t win this person over. It may have even pushed her further away. And the sticker probably ended up in the garbage. In fact, I think that short slogans and bumper sticker phrases—whether political, religious or otherwise—generally don’t change people’s minds. Even with our best intentions. Sure, we may tell someone to “keep Christ in Christmas.” But it does nothing to convey the meaning of Christmas. Why this is such good news that we celebrate it with deep joy. Every single year.
So I have an alternate proposal. One that will help us get at the meaning of things. Instead of doing away with bumper stickers altogether, I am going to propose an alternate one. And I’ll workshop it all with you here this morning. Here it goes. “KEEP THE QUIRINIUS IN CHRISTMAS.” What do you think? How about “keep THE Quirinius in Christmas?” Still, no?
You see Quirinius is a big part of this story. Because the nativity story in the Bible’s book of Luke always begins the same way:
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
I’ll bet that 99% of us who attend a Christmas service around the world hear his name every single year. It seems like a really small, strange detail. But this is how the Christmas story begins. With Caesar Augustus, a Roman Emperor. And Quirinius, a governor. For the first hearers of this story, this was a pretty big deal. Because for them, the Romans were the largest empire in the world’s history. The Romans occupied their home. The Romans ran the whole world. The Emperor stands at its head. Quirinius, the governor, officially represents the empire in occupied territory. The world’s story at this point is a story of power. A story of wealth. Of influence. The world’s story at this point in time is the Roman story. And so this is why the story begins with the opening camera shot on Rome. Focusing on an Emperor and a Governor. People of power, wealth, influence. People of significance.
And this is the same story that our world lives by, too. One that we don’t notice because it’s so deeply embedded within us. One that can even drive our lives without us even knowing it. We have been told that the way to live a life of significance is to have enough money, the right house, the right stuff. That the way to live a life of significance, a life that truly matters in the world is to have enough power—whether it’s in the realm of politics or climbing up the corporate food chain. We have been told the way to live a life of significance means to have influence—either through celebrity, or the right friends and the right job. And if we don’t have these things there’s something wrong. And we need to get them. We’ve got to keep up with the Joneses. We live by the same story. It may not be the Roman story, exactly. But we still live in the same world that Christ was born in to. Where to be significant, you have to fit the world’s criteria for significance.
But the Christmas story challenges all that. The story may begin with an Emperor, and a governor. It’s there but it’s not there long. It begins with a world driven by Emperors, Governors, CEOs, financiers and celebrity cults. And yet… as fast as the story begins, the camera pulls back. It pans way off to the side. Away from the city to the countryside, to the hills. Away from the palaces and stockmarkets in Rome, and towards Bethlehem. From the center of the world economy to an insignificant town in a way-off, insignificant part of the world. And this is where the angel appears. Away from where the most significant people set the world’s agenda, to a place where shepherds, some of the world’s least significant people care for their families by feeding their flocks. So, in order to understand this story, in order to understand our story, we need to keep the Quirinius in Christmas.
The truth is that the angel comes to shepherds, poor working people. Just like how the baby comes to Joseph, a carpenter, and Mary, an unwed, pregnant teenage mother. God becomes fully present to these people. And this is where the real story is. The story of the universe isn’t about Augustus or Quirinus. Or Donald Trump. But God is not found up in the lofty places of privilege and power that can be accessed by a select few. But God is found deep in the dirt, God comes among ordinary people who are trying to make a living. And despite the seemingly insignificant circumstances of their lives, they are the ones who are going to experience this incredible moment, this deep joy, first hand. God is found right here.
God is found right here. We do not have to do something we haven’t done. We do not have to have something we don’t have. We do not have to be something that we aren’t. God has come to us in Christ and invites us to a life filled with deep joy. A life of true significance. Here and now. God is right here and right now. All those things that the world tells us that we need to be important, successful, significant. All are irrelevant. When we stand before the manger. It’s so much more than a bumper sticker can say.
So, then, think of this day as a sign for you. Though it is another Christmas season. One comes year after year. One that seems so insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Remember this truth (this gospel truth, if you will): is that no matter who you are, how much money you’ve got, or if you think you’ve screwed everything up, you can live a life of significance. No matter you are on the rungs of life’s ladder, you can live a life of significance. Even if nobody remembers your name when you die, you can live a life of significance. Because you already are significant. Because you stand right at the center of the heart of God who has come for you. You, we, all people can experience this good news of great joy. Right here. And right now.
So keep Christ in Christmas, sure. But make sure you keep Quirinius in Christmas, too. Otherwise you might forget what the story, your story, is all about. AMEN.