Caesar Augustus and Herod were all about self-centered status, power and ego. … Mary and Joseph were the antithesis. Humble, not materially wealthy, ordinary in all appearances. And yet they were extraordinary.
In this season to be jolly, it is, by golly, hard to be jolly.
And if you’re not all that jolly, when you think of what you, your family, your friends, your business and your work colleagues have endured in this trying year, perhaps we should put it in perspective — keep our perspective on what this season is really all about.
Compare, for instance, our lives today to those of Mary and Joseph in the year 4 A.D.
We all know what happened on Christmas — as St. Luke masterfully wrote in his Gospel (see box). But having some of the context that led up to that holy, remarkable day adds to its richness.
In truth, Jesus’ birth is a story for Jews and Christians alike. After all, Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, were Jews. And the setting for this momentous, monumental event was in the heart of the land that God promised to Abraham and Moses: Israel.
The main characters leading up to Jesus’ birth — Mary; Joseph; Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth; and her husband, Zacharias — were anything but celebrities in their day. They were as common as Iowa farmers. And yet, in reality, Mary and Joseph were indeed connected to royalty. Biblical scholars tell us they actually were both descendants from the lineage of King David, the longtime king of Israel.
But at that time — around 4 B.C. — the Jews of Judea (central Israel) were anything but a privileged, royal class. They were living under the rule of Caesar Augustus and his vast Roman empire and under a maniac ruler, King Herod, an Arab-Jew who was a client king for Caesar Augustus.
Imagine life under Herod. The biblical historian Josephus wrote that “Herod inflicted such outrages upon the Jews as not even a beast could have done if it possessed the power to rule over men.” So vile and monstrous, Herod became infamous for murdering his wife, three of his own sons, his father-in-law, his brother-in-law and 300 of his military leaders.
On top of this, and even though Herod allowed Jews to practice their religion without much interference, the Jews also had to contend with the Samaritans, half-Jew, half-Gentile who lived between Judea and Galilee.
“The enmity between Jew and Samaritan was so intense” wrote biblical historian James Edward Talmadge, “that travelers between Judea and Galilee would make long detours rather than pass through Samaria.”
This is what Mary and Joseph faced when they received word of Caesar Augustus’ order for a census. He demanded that everyone register in his hometown. For Mary and Joseph, this meant traveling from Nazareth in Galilee in the north to Bethlehem in Judea in the south — an 80-mile, four-day journey that would have taken them right through Samaria. And let’s not forget: Mary was nine months pregnant.
In his gospel on the birth of Christ, St. Luke was sparing on the details of Mary and Joseph’s trip. The fact there are few details must mean it was mostly uneventful. But you could imagine it otherwise: Any woman in her ninth month of pregnancy is physically miserable — can’t sit for long stretches, can’t sleep, constant heartburn, hemorrhoids. So imagine Mary and Joseph traveling in a caravan, with Mary riding much of the trip on a donkey. The nights were cold.
On Dec. 23, they had two days to go before reaching Bethlehem. And at this point, they would just be passing through Samaria. Jewish travelers who dared that route were marks for bandits.
But we know God was watching over Mary and Joseph. They made it to Bethlehem, but only to find out there was no room at the inn.
Bethlehem was normally a sleepy little town, but it was bustling with Jews who had returned to register for the census.
Mary and Joseph, we know, found a stable. But this wasn’t the stable we see on the Hallmark Christmas cards. The stables in those days often were dark, cold caves with “mangers” — animal-feeding troughs carved into the stone walls. The mangers in those days were not wooden cribs padded with dry, neatly arranged hay.
With nowhere else to go, Mary gave birth — under the stars; amid the manure and muck; among the sheep, cows, goats and chickens; no doctors present to administer an epidural; with Joseph, her carpenter husband, assisting as best he could. Those who have witnessed birth know it’s difficult in a hospital bed. Imagine the scene in a smelly, dark, cold cave.
Yet this lowly, humble setting was the way Jesus Christ, the savior whom God sent for mankind, came into this world.
Now contrast the differences: Caesar Augustus maneuvering for worldly power and the biggest worldwide celebrity of his day; Herod, a regional celebrity, abusing his power in unspeakable ways. They were all about self-centered status, power and ego.
Mary and Joseph were the antithesis. Humble, not materially wealthy, ordinary in all appearances. And yet they were extraordinary.
God sent his messenger, the angel Gabriel, and stunned the innocent Mary, that she would conceive miraculously and bring forth a son who would “reign over the house of Jacob forever.” She would be his mother.
And Joseph, the quiet carpenter, he fretted over what would happen to Mary, his fiancee, if people found out she was pregnant before they were married. The angel Gabriel gave comfort to Joseph, just as he did to Mary.
And with humility, without complaint and far below the status of celebrity, they carried out God’s will, remembering all the while Gabriel’s assurance to Mary: “For with God, nothing shall be impossible.”
This is our heritage.
If we do anything in this holiday season, we should keep our perspective — give thanks to God and bring “peace on earth, good will toward men.”
Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas.
(Editor’s note: A version of this has appeared annually since 2010.)