They were not a wealthy couple. They got by all right in Nazareth because Joseph was a carpenter, a skilled job, but he didn’t make enough money for the finer things of life. Like everyone else in their country, Joseph and Mary relied heavily on their extended families to help them get through the lean times. And when they were doing well, there was always a third cousin or an aunt twice removed who wasn’t, so they helped as much as they could.
To say it was inconvenient to leave Nazareth to travel to Bethlehem would be the greatest of understatements. They had not counted on leaving Nazareth before the child was born. In fact, they didn’t think they would leave Nazareth ever. But a decree had gone out from the Roman emperor that the whole empire would have to pay a special tax. For some reason, the rulers of Judea decided that they may as well take a census while they were at it. Because of the tribal and clannish nature of society, the authorities ordered everyone to go to their ancestral hometowns to be counted and pay the tax.
Protests that some people could not make the trip, such as the aged and infirm, were simply met with rebuff. So Mary, very late in pregnancy, was compelled to schlep down the Jordan River valley on the back of a donkey. The journey by road was about ninety miles, plus having to climb more than 1,300 feet in altitude, so the trip took more than a week. You can’t travel fast leading a donkey on foot carrying a very pregnant woman.
They arrived in Bethlehem on yom rishon, which simply means, “the first day of the week,” the Jews having a specific name for a day of the week only for the Sabbath, the last day of the week. On the Sabbath, they had not traveled because religious law forbade long-distance travel on that day. Besides, they had needed the rest. So on Sunday afternoon, yom rishon, they reached Bethlehem, just one couple among hundreds of families arriving for the census.
Joseph was a lineal descendant of King David, whose hometown had been Bethlehem. Joseph never made too much of his royal ancestry. Certainly, he was not the only descendant of David, and just as certainly, Joseph never thought about claiming the ancient throne. The Jews had lived under foreign domination for hundreds of years, first by the Greeks and then the Romans. The idea of regaining political independence was simply absurd. There was no way successfully to fight the Roman army, as dozens of Mediterranean nations had discovered.
The little town of Bethlehem lacked the infrastructure to cope with a large influx of people needing to stay for several days at a minimum. The early arrivers had gained lodging with relatives, but the small houses filled up fast. There were few inns in the town that had filled well before Joseph and Mary got to town.
Joseph tried to gain lodging at an inn, but the owner was unyielding. He explained that to take them in, he’d have to throw someone else out. He would not have such dishonor on his head, pregnant Mary or no.
“Try the outside of town,” the man said. “There may be a few homes there with space for a kinsman.”
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So Joseph and his exhausted wife slogged out to the edge of town. After asking around they found a distant relative who said that although he had no more space in his home for even two more people, Joseph and Mary would be welcome to spend the night in his barn.
Joseph wasn't keen about his wife sleeping on the dirt. He started to decline, but Mary would have none of it. The sun was close to setting. Mary said in fairly unambiguous terms that she was ready to get off the back of that donkey right now. She would have accepted a bed of rocks if that was all there was.
Joseph relented. "Yes, dear," he said. He was tired, too. “Very well,” he said to his distant cousin, “I thank you for your hospitality. Please show us the way.”
Bethlehem is a hilly place. The cousin led Joseph along a path behind his house that passed down a hillside for a short distance. They stopped in front of a stone wall jutting out from the hillside, which was almost vertical at that place. Joseph could see that his cousin had turned a small cave in the steep hill into a barn by adding this wall and another and covering the space between with a crude roof. The ground in front was not steep, getting in and out would not be a problem.
“Perhaps tomorrow there will be a place in a house,” said the cousin. “I’ll ask my neighbors and kinsmen. This barn is not much, I know, but for tonight it will keep the wind off your wife and you'll be dry if it rains.”
“Yes,” replied Joseph, “this will fine for tonight. I suppose many people will be spending the night in the open, so I am grateful.” Joseph had noted that there was ample, clean straw in the barn and thought that spreading blankets over it would not make a bad bed, after all. Like everyone else he knew, save the rich, of whom he knew very few, he had slept on mattresses stuffed with straw his whole life, so this arrangement would be quite serviceable.
“There’s no need for you and Mary to come down here yet,” said the cousin. “It’s crowded in my house, but you can rest there until bedtime. Besides, you will need to have supper. Bring what food you have and the other women will cook it. Then we’ll all eat together.”
Joseph nodded his head and the two men turned to walk back up the path where Mary waited.
There are occasions in history that I call hinge occurrences. Like a hinge swings a door, some things that happen swing the course of human events in a new direction. Afterwards, there is no going back. The course has been changed for all that follows.
Hinge events are decisive, though not actually rare. In fact, it’s easy to think of some. Columbus’s voyages to and from the New World certainly qualify. So does Galileo’s invention of the scientific method, and so does the Meiji Restoration of the 1860s in Japan, which set Japan on its course of expansive militarism, leading finally to Hiroshima.
Yet all these things, whether tragic or triumphant, occur in a world in which human beings are not the only actors. “There ’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” wrote Shakespeare, “Rough-hew them how we will.” God’s hand does the shaping, most always subtly and far from obvious.
Yet from time to time God does intervene in stunning ways. After four hundred years of chattel slavery in Egypt, the pharaoh unaccountably let the hundreds of thousands of Hebrew slaves leave for Canaan. Unaccountably, that is, unless the hand of God pushed him.
One need not affirm Christian faith to acknowledge that a quiet night in Bethlehem, two thousand years ago, was a hinge event that has overwhelmingly shaped history since then. But we cannot really single out Jesus’ birth, as if it stands alone from his ministry, execution and resurrection. There was a thirty-three-year hinge swinging the door of history then.
Christ has come. He was born, he grew up, he lived, he ministered. In Jesus, say the Scriptures, the fullness of God dwelt bodily. Jesus was born and was Emmanuel, Hebrew for “God With Us.”
Christ has died. And he was raised by God from the dead so that, says the apostle Paul, we may know with certainty that the promises of God are true: we live, we die and we will live again.
Christ will come again. There is a “divinity that shapes our ends,” and the end of history is the fulfillment of creation, when Christ will return and judge the living and the dead. The Advent of God’s decisive intervention began long before that singular night in Bethlehem, and it was embodied in Bethlehem. But it did not end there. There was the coming of Christ into the world, and there shall be the coming again of Christ to place all things under his feet.
Christ was born. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is the whole message of Advent.
By the next morning Mary would no longer be an expectant mother. When the baby was only a few hours old a middle-aged husband and wife would swap places with them so that Mary and her newborn could be sheltered inside the house. In the days to come the census would be finished and the tax would be paid. The hundreds of people who had come to Bethlehem would depart to their homes.
The hinge of history had started to turn, and a new portal to a new future was opening. In only a few years the door would be thrown open fully wide, and the light of God’s salvation would pour through.
Its is Advent, a time of light. Let us renew our devotion to living in that light.
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