Context always helps.
Too often, we don’t get enough context. Especially now, at the height of the Christmas hubbub.
Our pastors, of course, try to keep us grounded. They remind us that Advent is the time to prepare the way (ourselves) for the coming of the Lord. And they chide us for becoming too focused on commercialism. Remember the real meaning of Christmas, they instruct — “Christ” and “Mass” … the anniversary of the birth of Christianity’s Savior.
We know the image of the moment — the Christmas-card setting of Mary with the Christ child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, in a tranquil barn full of hay, sheep, cows and chickens, with Joseph stooped beside his young wife and new child, the shepherds standing by, their star shining high above them.
The reality is it wasn’t nearly that angelic. And as peaceful as history depicts that majestic scene — majestic in its simplicity — putting that scene in historical context makes it all the more remarkable and glorious:
Let’s go back a ways. Not to Day One, but back to the recording of the birth of Christ. Gospel writers, Sts. Matthew and Luke were the most explicit in the recounting of Christ’s birth.
Matthew, who was Jewish and known as Levi before becoming one of Jesus’ 12 apostles, wrote his Gospels to his fellow Jews to try to prove to them that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. That explains why the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is a listing of the geneology of Christ. Matthew wanted to show and prove that Christ was a descendant of King David, who was a descendant of Abraham, two of the greatest figures in the Old Testament.
“Thus there were 14 generations in all from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the exile to Babylon and 14 from the exile to the Christ,” Matthew wrote. One of those descendants was Joseph, Jesus’ father. Mary was also a direct descendant of David.
Matthew didn’t write about the specific chronological and descriptive details of Christ’s birth. Instead, writing to his Jewish audience, he showed the birth as a completion of a promise. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.”’
St. Luke wrote the most detailed version of Christ’s birth. Based on his background, that was fitting.
Luke was a physician. A Greek and a gentile, he also was a friend of St. Paul. He didn’t know Jesus first hand, but biblical historians say that because of Luke’s Greek heritage and education, he was a man who paid close attention to details. Luke wrote his Gospel on the basis of eye-witness accounts he gathered through interviews. He was akin to what we might call an investigative reporter.
Indeed, in his first verses, St. Luke tells his readers: “Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to write an orderly account …”
Luke tells of the angel visiting the engaged and virgin Mary, informing her that she would give birth to a son. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High,” angel Gabriel said. “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
St. Luke had to be understating Mary’s response: “How will this be since I am a virgin?”
In spite of the lengthy detail in St. Luke’s prelude to the birth of Christ, he avoided the whole discussion of Joseph and Mary’s dilemma. As St. Matthew reported, Joseph was quite shocked to learn that his fiancee was pregnant. This was physiologically impossible, Joseph thought.
As would have been the custom in those days, Joseph wanted to end his engagement — but do it quietly so not to embarrass Mary. Joseph changed his mind, however, after “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Humble Joseph did as the angel instructed.
Then came the journey to Bethlehem.
If there is a part of Luke’s Gospel where he was sparing in his detail, it was Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. In the overall context of Jesus’ birth, it must have been uneventful, or so Luke thought. But you could imagine it otherwise.
This was an 80-mile journey. Mary was nine months pregnant. They traveled either in a caravan or with Mary riding on a donkey, with Joseph leading the beast. Either way, the trip would have taken a minimum of four days to a week.
What made it more daunting was they had to travel through Samaria to get to Judea. At the time, Samarians and Jews were much like Arabs and Jews today — they didn’t get along. Jewish travelers going through Samaria were at risk of bandits attacking and robbing them. It was highly unlikely Samarians would not have offered Mary and Joseph shelter.
A comfortable hotel room would have been a great luxury when the couple arrived in Bethlehem. But, of course, we know there was none. They found a stable instead. It wasn’t like the stables we see on the Christmas cards.
Historians say stables in those days often were dark caves with “mangers,” feeding troughs carved into the stone walls, not wooden cribs padded with dry, neatly arranged hay.
With our spoiled sense of entitlement and creature comforts, we would have been appalled at such conditions imposed on us. But this must have been ordinary for those times. And as a consequence, instead of focusing on Mary and Joseph’s primitive surroundings, Luke, more appropriately, offers his readers a simple, explicit and great picture of one of the greatest events in mankind. Read his description in the accompanying box, St. Luke’s Gospel, verses 1-16.
To borrow a phrase: now you know the rest of the story.
… For unto you is born this day …
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
St. Luke, 2:1-16, King James Bible