Christmas time is a simple time of year. Except for the crowded stores, children’s Christmas plays and concerts at school and at church …it’s a simple time of year. Growing up on a farm in the Missouri Ozarks kept it simple for our family. I honestly think I was more excited about seeing all my aunts, uncles, and cousins than I was about opening gifts. (The gifts were nice too though!).
We were a large family. I mean – LARGE! Nine aunts and uncles joined us as we all went to my grandparents’ home. There was a lot of hustle as we gathered the prepared food for the table. One of my uncles would say grace before mothers began preparing plates of food for the little ones. Usually many of my cousins and I would take the plates we prepared for ourselves into the living room where we could freely converse as we ate. If weather permitted, a family “touch football” game would follow that afternoon in our grandparent’s yard. Good times!
As large as our family was – it was small compared to the family of Joseph. Augustus (formerly known as Octavian) decided to have a census of the whole Roman Empire. Quirinius was in charge of this census; with Judea being a part of his province in Syria. The historian Josephus also records a “world wide census”, never recorded before or since.
Each family had to register, in person, at their family’s ancestral town. Talk about a family get together! There must have been thousands of the Ben-David family decend upon the village of Bethlehem-Ephrata all at once. Since Joseph and Mary were both of the lineage of David, Joseph definitely had to go to register. Mary and he were pre-married, having gone through the first part of the ritual of marriage common in that time. It was more than the engagement period of our day, more married than not. However, they apparently had not completed the marriage ceremony as yet. We do not know if Mary’s parents were still living at that time or not. Regardless, Mary accompanied Joseph to Bethlehem for the census.
Nazareth is in the northern part of Israel – an average of 4 - 5 days travel to Bethlehem by foot or caravan. Rooming with family members who already lived there was probably on a “first come-first served” basis. Being of the House of David, (Ben or bar David) in this case, was not an exceptional thing. The relatives were literally coming in from all over the country. By the time Mary and Joseph were there, all homes and rooms in Bethlehem and the surrounding area were full. They could have done as they had done en route – sleep in a tent or under the stars. While they were in Bethlehem, however, Mary went into labor.* A tent, at the very least, would be needed for privacy. What we do know is after Jesus was born, He was swaddled in cloth and laid in a feeding trough, or manger.
Where would this manger have been? It could have been one out in the field, or it could have been in a stable. Many homes in towns were built with a stable underneath having separate entrances for livestock. Some homes were built atop or in front of cavern stables which would also have separate entrances. I believe it was in a stable Jesus was born.
The manger was important; especially to shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem that night. They probably encountered lots of strangers as they, too, had to register for the census in town. It would have not been unusual for one to approach them as they were camped out. However, it was a different thing when a man appeared and the power and glory of G-d – the Sh’khinah - enveloped all of them – not just this man. It quickly became apparent they were in the presence of one who was close to G-d. An angel was there with an important message! It was not a message only for kings and princes. It was a message for all people; including simple shepherds. That day, in the town before them, their Redeemer and Messiah had been born! Right there! Not in Jerusalem where the Temple stood and the priests strutted about in their refinements. It was in a shepherds town the Messiah had been born!
They would recognize Him by a simple thing: He was swaddled, as babies were; but He would be laying in a manger. A manger! This was not a commonplace thing to have a newborn sleeping in a manger as some have recently been teaching. If it were commonplace, then how could it have been a sign to the shepherds to confirm this Infant was indeed the Messiah?
The reason the Sh’khinah had enveloped the shepherds soon became clear: all around them were hundreds of angels – an army’s worth! They were there, on the ground, with them, surrounding them! These angels began singing the most glorious of praise songs to G-d, and to His Messiah. Declarations of peace from G-d upon these precious, gentle people were beyond that which the shepherds could have hoped for. What a birth announcement!
Those shepherds probably herded their sheep into one of the stable caves nearby before heading into town, as the angel had encouraged them to do. He had said there was a manger sign they were to seek. Mangers would be in stables; they knew where all the buildings which had stables would be located. It took them little time to find Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus. Jesus could have been lying in Mary’s arms, nursing. Or Joseph could have been holding him in awe of this Holy thing G-d had done. But, no. The shepherds found Jesus just as the angel had said: wrapped snuggly and sleeping in a manger.
Seeing the confirmation of the angel’s words before their very eyes – the shepherds told Mary and Joseph about the announcement of the birth of the Messiah. To any others who may have been nearby they also told what had happened! Imagine leaving the stable on the way back to their flock and running into one of the many registrants that He was here – the Messiah was here! Their praises were to G-d all the more reverent because they had witnessed G-d’s manger signs.
*Recently, much has been made of the word “days” in Luke 2:6 “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” The argument goes that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem for days or even weeks before she had Jesus. Without getting too technical, the verse simply means that she was full-term and while they were went into labor. They may, indeed, have been there a couple of days before Jesus was born, given the volume of people undergoing the census. Imagine the commotion of standing in line for hours or even days to wait to register yourself and your household – many of which would contain five or more children!
Scriptures are from the Complete Jewish Bible
Luke 1:1 Around this time, Emperor Augustus issued an order for a census to be taken throughout the Empire. 2 This registration, the first of its kind, took place when Quirinius was governing in Syria. 3 Everyone went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 So Yosef, because he was a descendant of David, went up from the town of Natzeret in the Galil to the town of David, called Beit-Lechem, in Y'hudah, 5 to be registered, with Miryam, to whom he was engaged, and who was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to give birth; 7 and she gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him in cloth and laid him down in a feeding trough, because there was no space for them in the living-quarters. 8 In the countryside nearby were some shepherds spending the night in the fields, guarding their flocks, 9 when an angel of ADONAI appeared to them, and the Sh'khinah of ADONAI shone around them. They were terrified; 10 but the angel said to them, "Don't be afraid, because I am here announcing to you Good News that will bring great joy to all the people. 11 This very day, in the town of David, there was born for you a Deliverer who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 Here is how you will know: you will find a baby wrapped in cloth and lying in a feeding trough." 13 Suddenly, along with the angel was a vast army from heaven praising God: 14 "In the highest heaven, glory to God! And on earth, peace among people of good will!" 15 No sooner had the angels left them and gone back into heaven than the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go over to Beit-Lechem and see this thing that has happened, that ADONAI has told us about." 16 Hurrying off, they came and found Miryam and Yosef, and the baby lying in the feeding trough. 17 Upon seeing this, they made known what they had been told about this child; 18 and all who heard were amazed by what the shepherds said to them. 19 Miryam treasured all these things and kept mulling them over in her heart. 20 Meanwhile, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen; it had been just as they had been told.