In the words of Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Never had a family been given greater promises yet had to endure such privation. This birth was like no other. The angels of God sang at the birth of Jesus; yet the only men who came were dirty and humble shepherds and a few Pagan Magi. The whole Jewish world was eagerly expecting the arrival of this child, yet none of the leaders of the Jewish nation showed up that night. What can we know about the Holy Family? What can we learn about the birth of Jesus Christ by what is and is not said. Come look with me into the greatest story ever told.
The first thing we need to learn is that Joseph and Mary were poor. This is evidenced by the offering made for purification by Mary at the Temple. The fact that she offered up two turtledoves is proof of poverty. There was no room at the inn for them, but if they had enough money, surely one of the guests could have been bought to give up his room. Another piece of evidence of the poverty of the holy Family is evidenced in Joseph’s occupation. The Scripture in Greek says he was a “tekton” as compared to an “architekton” from which we get the word “architect”. An architect in the Greek world was a master builder of some sort. This could be a skilled carpenter or stonemason. By Joseph only being called a “tekton”, it showed he was more of a carpenter’s assistant or even a common day laborer who came to the marketplace every morning in search of work for the day.
We all have read the two Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke. We know of the vision of Zacharias concerning the birth of John the Baptist who would be a forerunner of the Messiah. We remember the beautiful thanksgiving psalms of Mary and Zachariah. We know the story of the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary of Nazareth. What inspiring things were said and promised concerning the Christ child.
If we have ever read the Gospel of Luke or heard the Lukan story through “A Charlie Brown Christmas” we remember the decree of Caesar Augustus that everyone in his empire was to be enrolled for the purpose of taxation. Each Roman province probably had some liberty on how to carry this out. For Quirinius who was serving his first term as the governor of the region of Syria which included Palestine, it was determined to gather the people into clans. As Joseph was of the clan of David, he was instructed to return to his ancestral hometown of Bethlehem. The great Augustus had made a decree, but unknown to this great Caesar, he was just a part of God’s greater plan.
Joseph had recently taken Mary to be his wife under suspicion that he had fathered a child before the consummation of the marriage. He received the order to go to Bethlehem with Mary who as the King James Bible puts is was “great with child”. This would entail journey of about seventy miles from Nazareth over rough, hilly terrain. Could they have even afforded a donkey to put Mary on, or did she have to walk? Even if she was upon a donkey, it would have been a most difficult journey for a woman who was nine month’s pregnant.
As Mary and Joseph approached Bethlehem, the exhausted Mary went into labor. I am sure Joseph looked for a place for Mary to have a child. But the small inn was already filled. She would have to find somewhere else to give birth. But just who was in the inn? They would have been Joseph’s kinfolk. And the people who lived in the town were also his kinfolk. Was there not any one who had room in his heart to show compassion on a pregnant woman? We would expect even a stranger to show mercy to a woman in labor and given up his room for her.
Were Joseph and Mary shunned by Joseph’s kin? Besides lacking any other explanation for the refusal to give place to the wife of a kinsman, we get a clue from the fact that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth, which was Mary’s home town. The town was too small for two family groups to live in it. The characteristic pattern for marriage is that the father of the groom went to contract a marriage with the father of a daughter in another village. This was to prevent inbreeding. In this arrangement, all the men of the village were close kin, and their wives were taken from other villages. So why then did Joseph and Mary not return to Joseph’s home town, but hers? Again, it seems that Joseph was ostracized from his family.
Mary’s family would seem to have been more accepting of the couple. First of all, as a bride to be, Mary was kept secluded until the day that Joseph returned to take his bride. The mother stood guard over her daughter to protect her virginity. She would have known if a man got by her. This is why Mary was so shocked when the angel Gabriel appeared to her with the news that she was going to have a special son. It would have been easier for Mary to convince her mother and father under these circumstances than it would have been for Joseph to convince his brethren. They would have seen Mary as a harlot and adulterer. At the very least they would have wondered if they even believed Joseph to be the father how he snuck out to her village to get her pregnant. By marrying her, he was taking responsibility for the child.
I would feel that this is the best human explanation for Mary and Joseph to seek refuge in a manger. We know, of course, that God’s plan was being executed exactly as planned. The Lamb of God needed to be born among the lambs. In the most miserable of circumstances, Mary gave birth to a Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The Son of God had arisen and lay aside His glory which He had with the Father in the beginning. He had become flesh, not the flesh of royalty as men count royalty, He did not come like Herod or Caesar Augustus or Herod the Great, but as the humblest of servants in the meanest of circumstance.
Mary gave birth to her son and wrapped him up in strips of cloth like the mummy of an Egyptian Pharaoh and placed Jesus in a carved stone feeding trough shaped like a sarcophagus. It is interesting that this word which means “eating of the flesh” ironically describes the bread of life as does his placement in the feeding trough. This child was born to die. The Magi would soon come and bring their gifts. The gold and frankincense were the tokens of royalty, but myrrh was a burial spice. Simeon would soon prophesy to Mary that her own heart would be stabbed. She would see her Son die the cruelest of deaths on a Roman cross, having been rejected by all of the Jewish nation. This death would seem like Jesus was the victim of human hate and a great misfortune, but again, things went exactly according to the plan of the Father. This would be certified three days later when God raised Jesus from the dead. He who was wrapped in linen cloth and laid in a stone tomb came forth on the third day as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Where is Augustus? Where is Herod? All that is left of them is in the dry dust of history books. They are dead. They were given magnificent burials. Their bodies were rendered back to the earth from which they came. The magnificent buildings they constructed are now rubble. All things which humanity calls great shall eventually be humbled. The humble Christ, however, sits exalted at the right hand of God. Soon He will return to judge the living and the dead and to gather his people unto Himself.
Paul says that not many wise and noble were called unto Christ. He also states that God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. No philosopher would ever have thought it. And the Jews saw the death of Christ as the utter scandal. But as we have seen, the people of this world make their schemes out of their own human free will. But even the schemes of the great cannot but fulfill the will of God. Augustus mad his decree for his own purposes. Little did he know that his decree would be used to undermine his own kingdom!
We find ourselves engaged in our own struggles. It seems like our lives are spinning out of control. The decrees of others seem to have power over us. We must realize that despite human appearances that God is actively working all things together for our good. We cannot be victims of circumstances at all. We are more than conquerors through Him who as loved us, the One who thought it not robbery to be equal with God became one of us. God has called us to follow in the path of suffering and humiliation even as Jesus did. We have the promise that we will someday reign with Him if we also suffer with Him.
Do you have room in your heart for Jesus? Are you eagerly awaiting His return? When you hear His call, do not shun Him. Find your acceptance in the One who was despised and rejected of men because He is Lord of all. A great reward lies ahead to those who are faithful. Mary and Joseph endured great duress in this life, but God’s promises carried them through. They now sit in the great arena of heaven cheering us on as are all of God’s saints who have faithfully followed Jesus with their crosses. We must reckon that the sufferings of the faithful are nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed in us. The worst of times shall become the best of times. The persevering character of faith shall overcome the mere credulity of this age. The wisdom of this age has been replaced by a greater wisdom as God has rendered this epoch into foolishness. The hopelessness of this age has been swallowed up by an everlasting and sure hope to them who will believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus by his coming has done something He by His coming has done a far better thing than I have ever done or could do. And He has prepared for us a rest that is far greater “that I go to than I have ever known”. Will you be there?