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. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.- Luke 2:1-20
They finally finished packing and set off on their way to Bethlehem. But this wasn’t a pleasure trip. It was a trip made solely because the Roman emperor had ordered it. Everyone had to be registered in a census, but this wasn’t a census to figure out how to distribute members of Congress or how to allocate social welfare programs. This census had only one purpose – to identify every person under the power of the Roman Empire, so they could all be taxed. Yes, name right there, address just below. Sign here, please. Thank you, here’s your taxpayer ID number; one of our agents will be contacting you shortly.
They barely had enough to survive on as it was, before the tax, and the cost of this trip was going to make things even worse. Why did they have to go to Bethlehem to register, anyway? Rome couldn’t have cared less what tribe or clan you were from, much less where its ancestral home was; all they cared about was that the check cleared. The tax was going to be collected in Nazareth anyway, why couldn’t they just register there? No, this trip was just another way for Rome to inconvenience the locals just because they could; just to remind them who was in power; who was calling the shots. So like it or not, and with the added inconvenience of traveling while extremely pregnant, off they went.
At very least, they’d be able to mix a little pleasure with the business. At the risk of contradicting countless Christmas pageants and TV specials, there wasn’t any such thing as a commercial inn or hotel in ancient Palestine. When you traveled, you had to stay with relatives, or rely on the hospitality of strangers. That’s why the idea of extending hospitality was so important in the ancient world; it was a life and death matter. It was so important, the prophet Ezekiel tells us that it was a lack of extending hospitality and compassion to others that caused God to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. So when they got into town, Joseph and Mary checked in with some of Joseph’s relatives, but with all the people pouring into the little village for the census, all the relatives’ homes were already full with other houseguests. The homes in Bethlehem were all very similar – the family’s sleeping quarters, what in the ancient Greek was called the kataluma, were all on an upper floor, while the ground floor was cooking space, and work space, and where the animals were kept. So since all the guestrooms were already full, one family member gladly welcomed them into his home. Sure, the bedrooms are all full, but we’ll put some sheets on the couch, blow up the air mattress, and you can sleep here on the first floor. It isn’t much, but it’s warm and safe and dry, and we’ll all have a good time visiting together; come on in.
Of course, while they were there, Mary goes into labor and has her baby. And just like so many people who have used a dresser drawer as a makeshift bassinette in a pinch, Mary improvises for her newborn baby, wrapping him up snugly and laying him in a niche cut into in the wall that was normally used as a food trough for the animals. And as soon as they can, all of Joseph’s family members staying in this house and probably several others nearby, all of the baby Jesus’ new aunts, uncles, and cousins, crowded the ground floor of the little house to get a peek at their new little relative, to touch him, hold him, count his fingers and toes, kiss him on the forehead.
Not far outside of town, some shepherds had finished their work for the day and were trying to get a little bite to eat just before they tried to find a soft spot on the ground to sleep on. Shepherds were typically, the weakest, the slowest. The family members who couldn’t really do much of anything else, so they were sent out into the field to watch the sheep; it was hard to mess that up. They were at the lowest rung of society. Plus, they just smelled bad. And yet, it was to these shepherds that God chooses to be the first to hear about Jesus’ birth. The angels tell the shepherds about the wonderful news of this magical night, and the birth of this child, God’s chosen one, who would change the world forever.
So they head into town and somehow, they find the right home, and they knock on the door. The owner welcomes them in and offers these strangers the hospitality of his home. He shows them where they can clean up a bit; his wife offers them some bread and a little wine and maybe some dates. After they’ve eaten, they work their way through all the relatives and introduce themselves to Joseph and Mary, and ask if they can see this wonderful child they’ve been told about. And one of Jesus’ little relatives, wanting to act oh-so-grown-up, carefully picks up her little baby cousin and shows him off to the visitors. And like everyone else, they look at the little baby in all his newborn perfection and can only imagine the hope and possibility of this tiny new life. If they only knew.
Well that isn’t exactly the traditional way to tell the Christmas story. But it certainly isn’t anything contrary to the scriptures, and it’s probably a lot closer to the way the events actually would have unfolded. Thinking about the Christmas story this way helps us to remember some important things, things that can easily be missed if we just hear this story yet again and imagine it in the same way that we’ve all gotten so familiar with.
Jesus’ birth occurred in the midst of the powerful rule and oppression of an occupying civil government. Emperor Augustus was officially known as the Son of God, the one with all the power. This story says no, *here* is the Son of God, here’s where the real power and real goodness is. Real peace is God’s peace, not the heavy-handed peace imposed by Rome which caused so much trouble in the people’s lives. This story reminds us that we need to place our trust in God, not in the powers of the world who would try to take God’s place in our lives.
This way of thinking of Jesus’ birth also emphasizes that from the moment of his birth, love, and compassion, and hospitality are important elements being held up in this story, if we can pay attention to it, that set the stage for how important these issues will become in Jesus’ teaching as an adult, and how important these things are to us as his followers.
And it’s important to notice that the very first people who God comes into contact with, in this direct way, are the common people – Joseph’s family, and their neighbors, and the lowly, smelly shepherds just in from the fields. This is who God first reaches out to, to share the good news of God’s favor for them. Not to the Emperor Augustus in Rome. Not to Herod the Great, the emperor’s appointed king of the Jews. Not to the chief priest at the Temple in Jerusalem. Not to the rich or powerful. Frankly, not even to people like us. To the poorest of the poor; the lowest of the low. God’s good news is good to them first, and then to us.
All through Advent, we’ve been lighting candles, symbolizing and building up to this night, the night we observe God’s light breaking into the world and changing it forever. That light, the true Light of the World, started in that humble little food trough cut into the wall. It spread out, first to the family gathered around, and then to the poor, lowly shepherds and the others who came to see the baby, and then out into the street, and then out into the street, and across time, and ultimately, to us. Tonight, we’ll take that light and we’ll share it, and spread it again, and then we’ll take it out even further, sharing it with everyone we encounter, showing them the same kind of love and hospitality offered to Joseph and Mary. This is the night of celebration – Christ, the Light of the World, has come –
Thanks be to God!