Summary: Through the birth of the Christ child and the visitation of the angels to the shepherds we see a God who cares and comes to us at our worst times to deliver us.
When we read the Christmas story of the birth of Christ I think we have a tendency to gloss over and glamorize what really happened. We sing our Christmas songs and envision this postcard picture of Jesus in a pristine creche as he lies in a manger on a bed of hay or straw. It’s beautiful, serene, peaceful, but probably not quite as perfect as we imagine it. Let’s take a moment to consider the realities of the birth story.
In about 4-5 BC, Caesar Augustus, the ruler of the entire Roman Empire, decided to have a census to count the people in his Empire. The purpose of such censuses was either to recruit for military service, like a draft, or to add an additional tax burden on the people. Since Jews were excluded from military service for religious reasons, the purpose of this census was probably to raise taxes, and we know from our own countries history how popular taxation imposed by a ruler who lives in another nation is (think of the Boston Tea Party, American Revolution, taxation without representation). Messengers were sent from Rome to the entire Roman empire until one messenger finally reached the outskirts of the empire to a little known region called Galilee and little known town called Nazareth and announced Caesar’s decree that all people must be accounted for so Caesar can collect on his taxes. Not only was one more tax being imposed on the people but they were forced to travel to their ancestral town in order to register there, probably out of convenience to the Roman officials so they didn’t have to go to every town. So a man named Joseph with his 8 1/2 month pregnant wife, Mary, begin to make the three day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, not because they wanted to, but because they were forced to by some greedy ruler who lives thousands of miles away. You can imagine travel was difficult especially with a very pregnant wife. I wonder how many times they had to stop for a bathroom break. While we picture Mary riding a donkey, the Scriptures do not mention it one way or another. Because of the cost of a donkey, and Mary and Joseph’s modest background, I find it is unlikely they even had one. So Mary could have walked the 100+ miles on foot.
Finally a few days later they arrived in the bustling town of Bethlehem, normally a quiet village but because of the census it was filled with people. As you can imagine, Mary was worn out, completely exhausted from the trip. So they begin looking for a place to stay the night, but because there were so many people there was no place for them to stay, not even any guest rooms in someone’s home. So of all places they ended up in a stable. Stables in the first century were not what we think of stables today. We think of a large red barn with individual stalls for each of the animals, or perhaps we think of the creche. In this case the stable was most likely a cave; dark, damp, cold. I can see Joseph having to clean a corner of the stable out for his wife, perhaps moving some manure out of the way just to make room for himself and Mary. If it wasn’t enough that Joseph and Mary were exhausted, and had to sleep next to the animals with the smell of manure wafting through the air, Mary began to have contractions, and they became closer and closer together, the child was coming that night, without a midwife, no family in about the filthiest place you can be. If I were Joseph I think I would be a nervous wreck. How many carpenters do you know that can deliver a baby? Joseph wasn¡¯t even trained in Lemans classes, he didn’t have any experience in delivering babies, and here they were all by themselves in a strange village about to have a baby. The Biblical story doesn’t tell us if Joseph went to find a midwife or someone with experience to deliver the baby. I supposed it doesn’t really matter, all that mattered was that Mary made it through the birth, and the child was born healthy. So they wrapped him strips of cloth (a common practice), and laid him in a feeding trough because there was no basinet or crib available. It was less than pristine conditions. It hardly seems like the way any child should be born into, let alone the Son of God.
I have to wonder, did Joseph and Mary question if God knew what He was doing?
The angel Gabriel had promised Joseph and Mary their child would be the king of kings who would receive the throne of his ancestor David and rule forever, he would even be called the Son of God. And yet here they were in a dark, cold, dirty stable in a village far away from home. This hardly seemed a fitting arrival for the Savior of all humanity. I wonder if they questioned God when they heard about the census from the Emperor requiring travel in Mary’s last trimester of pregnancy? I wonder if they questioned God as they walked the long road to Bethlehem? I wonder if they questioned God when they arrived in Bethlehem and went from place to place without finding a place to stay. I wonder if they questioned God when the Christ child was born in a stinky, dirty manger. Did it cross their mind that maybe God might have goofed, or was playing with them all along? Or perhaps they doubted what God had promised them about the child, maybe Joseph’s dream about the angel visiting him to tell him not to leave Mary because she was going to bear the Son of God was just that a dream and not from God. The reason I have these questions is because I think I would have been questioning God at that point. Why would a loving heavenly Father treat the parents of his Son in such a way?