The year 2020 has been a difficult one for most of us by comparison to what we think of as normal. Depending upon your profession, you may have been overworked or struggled to find work. Many people lost loved ones this year, and many others were separated from their loved ones by time and space if not by life and death. The year Jesus was born was not an easier or harder year, just a different one.
God could have chosen noble parents for Jesus and he could have been born in the comfort of a palace or at least a landed estate. There were plenty around, but none from the line of King David and God had made a promise that he intended to keep. David’s ancestors were Jews, and the royal city of Jerusalem was under the protection of the Roman Empire. It was a peaceful time provided you did as Rome told you and did not voice any objections to their authority. But Rome had no tolerance for free speech, free assembly, or even passive aggressive acts of disobedience. No one was safe. Julius Caesar had himself been stabbed to death by the Senate for acting like a monarch.
Luke very intentionally places the story of Jesus, this Jewish Messiah, in the middle of Roman history. He tells us that Augustus was Caesar. He reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD. He took control of Rome after the execution of Julius Caesar. He became what terrified the Roman senate about Julius, an Emperor. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was a historical figure as well. He became legate of Syria (which included Judea) after the banishment of Herod Archelaus in 6 AD. One of his first duties was to hold a census for the purpose of taxation. (Quirinius, n.d.).
Censuses were considered bad omens in the superstitious world of first century Judah. Exodus 30:12 states, “When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered.”(NRSV) The Talmud, an ancient authoritative commentary on the Jewish scriptures forbade a census of Israel as a result. (BRODY, 2012) So, not only would this census be unwelcome because of its purpose and source, but there would be both a fear if one failed to comply of the wrath of Rome and a fear if one did comply of the wrath of God.
Luke tells us that everyone went to their own city to be taxed. We tend to put the emphasis on Bethlehem being associated with King David, but it is likely that Luke also meant that Joseph was born and raised in Bethlehem. He possibly had parents and siblings there and probably lots of cousins. Mary, according to tradition was from Nazareth or near there. Joseph may have been there visiting his intended and her family prior to their marriage or he might have been working in the area. There was a large Roman town called Sepphoris less than four miles from Nazareth (that is now an archeological dig) that would have provided plenty of construction work.
Luke takes Mary who is nine months pregnant and due any day on a journey of just less then 100 miles. Our Christmas cards all show Joseph walking and Mary riding a donkey. I hope she had a donkey, though nothing in scripture tells us they did, and it would have been considered quite a luxury for a carpenter. They arrive in Bethlehem which is very crowded. All the adult kids who were out in the world trying to make a living have come home for the census. There are no Days Inns or La Quinta’s in first century Bethlehem. Not even a good English pub with an upstairs bedroom. Joseph and Mary probably found a place to stay with relations, but when she went into labor there was “no room” in the κατάλυμα (THAYER’S GREEK LEXICON, n.d.), the upper room area where guests would gather to eat and sleep when visiting the family (same kind of place Jesus had prepared for his Last Supper) and so she was moved downstairs where there would be more room and more privacy for a women only activity, giving birth. This room, among other things, served as a place to protect, at night, what little livestock – a lamb, a goat, a few chickens that the family raised for food. Into the floors would be hollowed out areas where the feed for the animals was placed. It probably had fleas and smelled like a barn. This is where Mary placed the new-born infant Jesus, because it was better than the cold hard floor. It is hardly as romantic as a wooden manger in a horse stable or barn on a dairy farm in the countryside.
There is a grotto, a small cave in the basement now of a large church, that by tradition is where Jesus was born. I have been in it. There is not much to see. The opening is only about four feet high. You have to duck to go in and it is just a small room either dug out or probably naturally formed in the rock. Israel is covered in these small rock indentations. People used them for shelter, for storage, for religious shrines and all sorts of things.
Bethlehem was probably a community built around sheep management. It was the area where David, before becoming king, looked after his father’s sheep. And in Biblical times it appears to have been a fertile area of rolling hills. And we are told by Luke, that there were shepherds out in the fields with their sheep when Jesus was born.
These shepherds were the first ones mentioned as coming to see Jesus as an infant. An angel appears to them out in the fields, and of course they are terrified. The angel assures them that they have nothing to fear and that he is there to give them Good News. The Savior, the anointed one, the Messiah has been born in “the city of David.” Not only did God chose to arrive as a common man, he chose individuals from one of the lowest levels of society at that time, to tell first. The sign they are to look for is the swaddling clothes and the feeding trough. Most infants at that time were probably wrapped in bands of cloth, but most were not placed in a feeding trough.
When the angel had finished his message he was joined by a whole host of heavenly creatures who were singing praises to God. It was as though at that moment, the curtain between the earthly realm and the heavenly realm were parted for just a few moments.
Once the shepherds regain their composure after their heavenly visitation, they lost no time in seeking out the child. Can you imagine a bunch of shepherds sticking their heads into everyone’s entry door checking to see if there is a baby in the feed trough? People must have thought them nuts, but they persisted until they found him, just as the angel had said. And they told Mary, and Joseph who is now at Mary’s side, what they had seen and heard and everyone else that they saw. Perhaps by this time, more family members or neighbors had joined them. We don’t put them in the nativity scenes because they are only named as “all who heard”, but I doubt it was a quiet night for Mary and Joseph.
So chaos and disorder are the nature of things sometimes, but right in the middle of it all, is Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the Son of the Father, Emmanuel – God with us.
BRODY, S. (2012, March 22). Ask the Rabbi: May Israel conduct a census? Retrieved from The Jerusalem Post: https://www.jpost.com/jewish-world/jewish-features/ask-the-rabbi-may-israel-conduct-a-census
Quirinius. (n.d.). Retrieved Dec 22, 2020, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quirinius#:~:text=Publius%20Sulpicius%20Quirinius%20(c.,the%20purpose%20of%20a%20census.
THAYER’S GREEK LEXICON. (n.d.). Lexicon :: Strong’s G2646 – katalyma. Retrieved from Blue Letter Bible : https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2646&t=KJV