Have you ever wondered what really happened in a story we’ve heard so many times before? Or do you, like all of us do at times, zone out because you’ve heard it so many times before?? Have you ever considered what things were like for those people we now see through the dim lens of history as characters? I’ve been pondering over the Christmas story as we approach the Holiday this year, and I invite you, dear readers, to join my musings. Or at least, put up with them . . .
Let’s consider the timing of the events. It was during the early years of the Roman Empire. The known Western world was at peace with itself for the first time in hundreds of years. There were open roads, patrolled by Roman armies, between countries. The speed of communication between places had never been greater, and wouldn’t be equaled again until the modern era. There was a universal language, Greek, by which everyone was understood, along with local languages and dialects. There was a stable government, prosperous commerce and people were enjoying a better standard of living than in the past.
There were also tremendous problems. Entire populations had been enslaved to please Roman masters. Taxes could be oppressive. The protective Roman army could also be brutal. Laws were stacked against anyone not Roman, as were the courts.
And the people who knew this event was coming had been waiting for thousands of years. Told a Messiah was on His way, they lived their lives as they waited and watched. First, a people, the Jews, was chosen. Then a tribe of the Jews, as Judah was picked. Then another choice, as the kingly line was promised to David and his family forever.
And then the kingdom was gone, lost by their own sin and judgment in occupation and captivity in Babylon. And when it seemed all hope was lost, the Jews were restored to their ancient land, a mere 70 years later. War, turmoil, and occupation followed, first by the Greeks and lately by the Romans. It was only really relatively few years into the famed Pax Romana, the Roman peace that would last for the next several hundred years.
Let’s consider the extenuating circumstances. It started, as many things do, with a government edict, to receive a tax. Governments have taxed their people for countless years, and this one was no different. And yet, it was different, because to properly tax the people, their government declared there would also be a census taken. We can easily imagine the unhappiness and disenchantment this order caused among the far-scattered peoples over which this government ruled. But taxed they were to be. And the census was to be taken by everyone returning to their ancestral homes.
The uprooting, even temporarily, would be incredible! Every city’s and town’s hospitality industries, however primitive, would be stretched to the maximum with guests. Families would be staying with extended relatives when they could, or camping in fields or caves when they could not.
And this was no modern, mechanized culture like our own. This was the Iron Age, dependent on animals for transportation needs. But horses were for the well-to-do. Donkeys were if one could afford it, were what average folk used. So getting anyplace also took considerable time and often an effort, especially if one couldn’t afford animal assistance. Roads were not paved unless one was traveling in what we now know as Italy or Greece. They were dirt, dusty when dry, muddy when wet and covered with snow in the winter in places where it snowed. There was no police presence to protect from robbers, so they could also be unsafe in remote places.
Let’s consider the main “characters”. Prior to the government edict, there had been an engagement announced in a tiny town in Judea. Mary, a teenage girl, perhaps no more than 15 and just past puberty according to the custom of the times, was betrothed to Joseph, an older, established man, a carpenter. This couple was, like most around them, Jews. A Jewish betrothal was a complicated process, lasting 6 months to a year, as the groom prepared the bridal home and the bride prepared the things to go in it, and her family prepared for the commonly 3-day long wedding feast. Unusually, this couple had finalized their wedding before the full engagement period was over, forgoing the long feast and just starting their marriage together, despite the barrage of gossip from relatives and friends.
They had married early because of the amazing things the bride told her groom. She was pregnant, not by him or any other mortal man, but by the power of God. The Child she carried was to be the Savior of the world, according to what the angel had told her. He initially found it incredible and didn’t believe her. He could have publicly humiliated her. He could have had her stoned, killed by having rocks thrown at her by the men of the town, with the first coming from him and her father. He could have divorced her. He did nothing. Eventually, God showed him she was telling the truth by sending him his own angelic messenger, and he took her in as his wife, against all custom and tradition.
When the edict came, this couple, the bride now heavily pregnant with her first child, made their way to his ancestral home, a 90-mile trek. It was not at all easy for a healthy person, let alone someone 8 or 9 months pregnant!
When they got there, there were no rooms for them anywhere. Finally, they met a compassionate innkeeper. He pointed out the caves, used as stables where shepherds took pregnant sheep who were soon to bear the lambs for Passover in the spring. The only refuge they found, the grateful couple took it. And it was there the Child was born, in a primitive place, in a rustic time, to a poor and relatively uneducated people.
Let’s consider this Child. Mary’s son, yet the Eternal Son of God. Named from conception by angels to be called Jesus, named for His purpose and mission on earth. Child of many Names:
Emmanuel, meaning God is with us
Messiah, meaning promised deliverer
Lamb of God
Christ the Lord
Prince of Peace
Lord of Life
Lord of All
Son of David
Son of God
This is but a sampling, as the list in various sections of the Bible goes on and on! Yet He was a Baby, just like any other baby. Born just like we are, painfully and messily. A Baby, who would be hungry, cold, needing naps and feeding and changing and burping. Needing to be taught all the things children learn and have learned since humans started having them. A Child needing to grow and discover the world around Him. A Boy Child, needing to learn his earthly father’s occupation and trade. And yet, simultaneously, in a miraculous way, God. God’s Son, God made flesh, as the Scriptures say.
Let’s consider again the location of His birth. In a stable, humble and rustic, not at all the sterile conditions with which modern first world peoples are conditioned to believe are a requirement. No, these were third world conditions at best. Maybe a midwife, maybe not. It could have just been Mary, a scared teenager, and Joseph, her equally scared husband. Young girls were kept innocent until such things actually happened to them, and they were assisted by mothers, aunts and other helpers, so she must have been very scared. Men didn’t have anything to do with the birthing process at the time, and his ignorance could have been terrifying to both of them. If there was no midwife, they were two complete tyros, muddling through in a place and conditions modern Westerners would find completely unacceptable.
And that place, that place. Jesus, God’s one true and forever Passover Lamb from eternity, born where lambs for the Passover were birthed. Really, it’s astonishing when I think about it overmuch. The shepherds knew immediately where that place was, and its significance, when the angels sent them there. They were, after all, the ones tending the flocks responsible for the provision of the Passover lambs. So when angels heralded the Savior, laying in a manger, they knew what those things would mean to them and their people. Illiterate, perhaps. Uneducated, no. It was a requirement of all Jewish men to know (and largely memorize) their Scriptures. They might not be experts in theology like priests in the Temple, but they knew what the prophecies said. And they believed when the angels announced it to them.
That was no small feat, the belief of the shepherds. The Priests, Pharisees and religious establishment never saw what was in front of their eyes. They saw what they wanted to see, what they believed was true. They looked at Jesus through their own misconceptions, even as we all do, and made wrong conclusions because their minds were closed to any other possibilities. The Truth was just too fantastic to be real to them. But not to the shepherds.
Nor to the wise men. Let’s consider them for a moment. Much has been written and said about these Magi of the East we call the wise men. It’s not conclusively known where they came from or who they were, perhaps astrologers from somewhere east of Persia, or maybe even India or China. It’s not known how many of them there were. It’s not known if they came on their own or were sent by some organized group back in their distant home. Their names are lost to history and only guessed at in story and song.
All we know is they came, seeking the Star they’d seen, first in error to Herod in Jerusalem. When given the correct directions by the religious establishment there Herod consulted, they left immediately for Bethlehem, less than 10 miles away. Another thing we know is they found the Child and His parents, worshiped Him and gave Him gifts of incredible wealth in their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Not only were their gifts costly, they were significant. Gold has ever represented kingship and rule. Frankincense represented priestly duties and intercession before God. Myrrh was used to heal and also used to prepare bodies for burial. These were kingly gifts given to people at the bottom end of the poverty levels and timed just perfectly for their needs.
Because the wise men brought not only gifts, but also a warning: Herod knows of the Child, and wants to kill Him! They left by another route and cautioned His parents to flee and do the same. Warned by angels in a dream, Joseph and Mary got up in the night, took Jesus and fled to Egypt, where the gifts of the wise men provided a living for them until they were safe to return home after the death of Herod a few years later.
Let’s consider the angels. Messengers throughout the story, speaking the words of God to His people after 400 silent years (prophesied in Amos 8) from the start of the Babylonian captivity and the death of the last of the Old Testament prophets until the first angel appeared to Zechariah, a Temple priest, to tell of the coming birth of his own son John, who would be the forerunner of the Messiah, according to Luke 1. An angel appears to Mary in person to announce her as the Messiah’s mother, and to Joseph in a dream, to confirm what she said to him. Angels herald the Birth to the shepherds with joy and great pomp. Angels appear to Joseph again in his dreams, warning him to go to Egypt, to escape Herod’s wrath. Four hundred years of silence from Heaven was broken. Not with a shout, but with angelic announcements and the cries of children, from the Messiah and His forerunner.
Let’s consider the Star. Some call it a star, some a comet. No one really knows what it was. An astronomical phenomenon never seen before or since the Star of Bethlehem is singular in history. It guided the wise men. It awed the shepherds and everyone they told about it. It was a standing star, in a sky of stars that ever move. A miracle of God all on its own, it’s a relatively minor player in the tale, eclipsed by the glory of the One who created it, and it was singularly created to herald. Like everything else in the story, it stands as unique and in many ways undefinable, even as is the incredible love of God woven throughout what we read and hear every year.
Finally, let’s consider the most astonishing thing of all, the love of God in this story. On that quiet holy night, Abba Father Daddy God reached out. The One who seemed remote and distant to mankind from the world’s creation, Who was awesome and fearful to His people the Jews, showed His true Father’s heart of love for the mankind He lovingly created.
I cannot emphasize this enough! Because if you get nothing else from what I’ve said in this post, please understand at its heart the Christmas story is a love story from Father God to you and me.
When Adam and Eve turned from God in the Garden of Eden, He could have done the same. He could have obliterated them and started over again. But He chose to send His Son, the physical representation of the Eternal Godhead of Three-In-One, to be born.
God could have sent His Son to be born in a palace, to be raised in pomp and rule from birth. But how could He have related to us that way? How could we have come close to understanding Him?? Instead, He sent Jesus to humble people, poor folk from a backwater town the religious elite would later scoff over, that His Son would be able to understand the humility and disdain everyone suffers sometimes in life.
Jesus could have come as an adult, fully formed. He could have come as a conquering king, suddenly appearing to make everything right. And indeed, He will come this way when He returns. But that time, He didn’t. Jesus came as a baby, born as we are, raised as we are, with all the inherent troubles, hazards and trials of a child growing into adulthood, that He might have compassion on us in our struggles. He came as a baby, small and vulnerable, that we might approach Him because humans ever find babies irresistible. Because we inherently know of His power, His majesty, and His might, and it frightens us. But as a Baby, a Holy Child isn’t frightening at all. As a Baby, He’s eternally approachable for everyone.
At Christmas, we love to give gifts to those we know and love. It’s an impulse that’s so innate in us, it’s almost instinctive. I believe this is because it’s put in us by the Great Giver of Life Himself, Father God. On that first Christmas, Father God reached inside Himself, becoming both Giver and Gift. In giving Himself to us in His Son Jesus, He is the Ultimate Gift we can both receive and give to a hurting world.
The Christmas story is more than shepherds and angels and stars. It’s more than wise men and Mary and Joseph. They aren’t just characters in the story and songs we hear every year, that most of us can repeat by heart. These were people like ourselves, ordinary people, who were chosen by God to play an extraordinary role in history, to reveal the Father’s love to mankind in His Son Jesus. Because that’s what it is, this history, it’s His Story.
May His Story be ever more real for you this Christmas, and bring your journey joy the rest of the year!