Caesar Augustus, emporer of the world, ordered a census. Everyone went to be registered because of Caesar Augustus’s decree that all the world should be counted. Joseph left Galilee and he took his betrothed wife, Mary, who was with child to go to his town, the city of David, Bethlehem.
I wonder if they were still betrothed because a marriage ceremony was denied them due to Mary already being pregnant? What a covering Joseph was to her — to share in her “shame.” Perhaps no Rabbi would bless them with the legitimacy of a marriage? And perhaps the census came as a welcome relief to get away from all the whispers and snubs?
I’d love to recommend Anne Rice’s books on Jesus’ life. She suggests that Mary and Joseph would have traveled with family and friends — not alone. She also suggests that they counted themselves as lucky to be out in the stables instead of in the stuffy rooms — I don’t know what it was like — but backing away from the Christmas pageant and entering into a more realistic story helps my soul to soar.
Mary delivered Jesus in a stable, wrapped him in long strips of cloth used to wrap infants (implying she was prepared), and laid him in a manger.
Such a setting is a dramatic juxtaposition to the birth of most kings, whom are typically celebrated so grandly. But this king was deliberately set among the ordinary — a king of a different kind, a king of a different people.
Instead of an earl handing out cigars and sipping champagne, or servants setting off fireworks, or heralds trumpeting the news on the street corner, angels sang the story to shepherds out in the fields, proclaiming:
Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!
The shepherds rushed to the stable to see the newborn king. Then, they spread the word to all the people in the countryside before returning to their quiet contemplation in the fields. Aren’t we all glad for confirmation? From anyone. I bet Mary and Joseph were happy to hear the shepherds’ story. I think it helped them to know they were on the right path. Sometimes hindsight hides the struggles inherent in a situation. I believe that every person who came forward to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God helped to solidify the determination to move forward in the difficult task for Mary and Joseph of raising an “illegitimate” son in an unforgiving culture.
When Jesus was circumcised and presented at the temple, Simeon was waiting, being promised that he would not die before seeing the Lord’s Christ. He took Jesus in his arms and blessed God saying that he had now seen God’s salvation, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles.
Anna, an old prophetess who had devoted herself to God for years, was also waiting in the temple. She also blessed the child and announced to those around her that this baby would be the redemption of Israel.
Mary and Joseph returned home with their little child, Jesus. Then, the Magi came — Persian? astrologers who had observed an unexplained phenomenon in the heavens and interpreted it to mean that a King of the Jews had been born. These Magi, from the priestly caste of Zorastrianism, sought the help of Herod to find and worship this new “King of the Jews.” Being warned in a dream to not consult with Herod again but to return home using another route, the Magi left in a manner consistent with the guidance they received.
Herod was incensed and the Massacre of the Innocents ensued.
So, to sum up.
God shares his plan with:
1) Prophets: people who speak of the future to prepare the hearts of a people who were unique — believing in one God and living differently. The prophets declared again and again that a Messiah was coming.
2) An elderly priest and his wife: a priest sees a vision of an angel and is promised a son in his old age. The old wife becomes pregnant and delivers a son who will be consecrated, set apart, for God — he will not drink wine or cut his hair and he will live in the desert, calling out for people to repent of their sins.
3) A teenage girl: a young virgin is told that she is chosen to carry out a very difficult part of the plan — to carry a child she did not conceive with a man. She accepts this in a time where brutal punishments were handed out to wayward women.
4) Her betrothed: Joseph is let in on the plan and accepts the painful responsibility of caring for a woman who is pregnant without his help and to raise a child that is not his own.
5) Shepherds: in their silence and solitude, they see the angels of God proclaiming the birth of the Messiah. Blessed are those who have time to see.
6) An old priest who is promised he will see the Messiah before he dies.
7) An old prophetess who has been a widow for over fifty years.
8) Stargazing priests who are true to their work, willing to take a journey to test their theories.
9) A half-Jew King who has weasled his way into the Emporer’s good graces and is ambitiously trying to gain legitimate loyalty from his subjects — a ruthless man who killed his own wife out of jealousy and is willing to slaughter a generation in order to stamp out the competition.
So, we have the story of Jesus being foreshadowed by eccentric prophets who were usually killed or ostracised for the visions they saw.
The actual actors in the story consist of an old couple, a pregnant teenager and her boyfriend, an old priest, an old prophetess, some shepherds, some Persian stargazers, and a ruthless king who will stop at nothing to secure his throne.
And from this story we have 2.5 billion believers and Western civilization — where the power of the world has resided for over one thousand, five hundred years.
It’s a powerful thing to ponder.
Somehow in going through it, I have found a quiet place in my heart to worship.
I most identify with the Magi — they’re the only Gentiles in the story. Like them, I came to Jesus after a long journey, following omens I didn’t fully understand, accidentally setting off a string of terrible events in the process — but when God spoke, I listened, and set off on another path. That’s all I could do. I didn’t have a ton of insider information. I didn’t have thousands of years of family history to get it all right. I’m a random marauder seeking the answers to bigger questions that aren’t really mine to ask.
But I asked anyway. And I found my way.
I’m either wise or stupid enough to keep asking. And I’ll follow the omens ’til I die.
It might have been just a silly journey that was a waste of time, money, and effort. I won’t really know til the end.
But I believe.
The story is too wonderful, too strangely complicated and simple.
For those who try to convince me otherwise, I love this speech from a character invented by C.S. Lewis in The Silver Chair.
All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the yong lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
Perhaps Christmas is just another holiday for friends and families to gather together. And the real world is all about Santa Claus coming down the chimney and buying, buying, buying and rushing, rushing, rushing, and earning, earning, earning — and enviously looking at others who have it better than you. Perhaps Christmas is just a break from school and work — a time to party. The real world is about business and clawing your way up and some of you getting thrown to the bottom and some of you gloating from the top.
But the story about a king born in a stable and announced to shepherds in the field is such a better story. It beats the “real” story hollow. Like Puddleglum, I plan on spending my life seeking out this make-believe world, where a humble baby is the king of the universe. Because the earth as-is is a pretty poor place. If there’s a bigger or brighter or beyond, which the prophets promise us, I plan on seeking it out and in the process helping people open their hearts to the idea that following a star to find a little child-king to worship might be the journey into a new existence.