From the Christmas Day Facebook Page of Dave Perkins (who really should write a book of compilations, for his essays are magnificent.)
Two thousand years ago, Bethlehem was little more than a clump of low grade homes, some of which were built onto the entrances of caves along a hillside so as not to waste the interior space. It wouldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred people, a town of the flocks, a shepherd’s town. It was a good walk from Jerusalem, I”d guess the better part of a day, and it wasn’t anywhere that anyone special wanted to be or go. It wasn’t more than a couple of hundred yards across. There certainly was no “inn” in the conventional sense, no hotels or businesses to speak of. Perhaps a few homes had extra room to take in travelers, but they could easily be overwhelmed by a special occasion, like the forced census by Roman decree in which all had to return to their home towns.
Bethlehem was a place to be FROM, but not much of a place to BE.
Now, imagine for a moment that in this place — this boring nothing of a place where nothing ever happened, this gathering of poor people scratching out a living — suddenly the most marvelous caravan of wealthy, influential, IMPORTANT people showed up. Such a thing had never happened before; Bethlehem was nowhere, and nobody special went there.
These gloriously attired, visibly wealthy men from far off exotic lands came into their tiny town, with camels bearing expensive supplies, bodyguards with exotic armor and weaponry, camp followers and paid assistants. Wealthy middle-aged men did not simply load their camels with expensive things and start out into unknown lands back then. They’d have been a group large enough and strong enough to deter robbers and criminal roadside gangs who made their living attacking wealthy travelers.
Wealthy men are wealthy because they’re not stupid.
The townsfolk would have been astonished, especially when they were told WHY these foreign men (probably Persians) had arrived in their outpost on the edge of the wilderness. They were looking for a newborn baby they said was the son of God Himself and born to save mankind.
They came to WORSHIP a BABY.
Everyone in this town knew which baby had just been born, to Mary and Joseph, natives of Bethlehem forced by Rome to return for the census. They were staying in one of the hillside caves because room was short. It could be called a stable, but caves were multi-use spaces back then, cool in summer and warm in winter, not the worst accommodation one could think of in this wilderness area.
And the foreigners found the baby Jesus and lavished Him with praise and expensive gifts.
Do you think the people of this town would FORGET such a thing? What happened and where?
Me neither. It’s a story that would have been passed down through the generations, told in homes at dinner, around the fires of the shepherds in the wild, never forgotten. Nothing remotely like it happened, before or since, in that little wilderness town.
And about five generations later, when Rome’s Queen Helena showed up with builders and architects and a demand to know where the events in the life of Jesus took place so that she could build churches on those spots, the people of Bethlehem would certainly have been familiar with the birth of Jesus and the great fuss that was made over it in that little town where nothing ever happened.
They would know which of the caves hosted His birth. They would have taken her to that spot and told the story proudly, a glorious moment in the history of their town. Some there would have been Christians, as even today Bethlehem has a strong Christian population.
The one thing they were NOT certain of was on what day of the calendar this happened. Bethlehem was not the kind of town that would have had official record keepers marking down historical dates as events took place. We are told He was likely born in the first week of January rather than December 25th, and that Christmas day came about as an effort to unify some pagan religions with Christianity by merging their solstice celebrations with that of the birth of Jesus. That’s okay with me. The exact winter day is not as important as what I have tried to explain here; that it DID happen, that the Church of the Nativity IS in the right spot, and that the little grotto beneath the altar is the very place the only begotten Son of God Almighty came into this world, to be my savior and yours.
Queen Helena, mother of emperor Constantine, took it on herself to memorialize the faith her son had adopted and made the official religion of Rome by building Roman churches on all the spots of the events of Jesus’ life. She did her research, and mostly she got it right. The locals she consulted were only a handful of generations away from those events, and the local people of those places would have been PROUD to have been from the place where this or that happened in the life of Jesus. They would not forget.
If you are a believer (and even if you’re not), I challenge you; visit that place, descend that staircase, find yourself looking at the spot where He was born — and keep your eyes dry.
I couldn’t do it. ((smile))
My mom sang in a group musical presentation of Christmas songs last Thursday, and her song was “Mary, Did You Know?”
“Did you know… that the Child you delivered would soon deliver you?”
I think she did.
Merry Christmas, my friends. This birth we celebrate means love beyond measure. I hope and pray you know it, in heart and soul and mind.