The Saga of the First Christmas (Introduction)
The Manger Scene is Only a Snapshot
Week of November 27, 2018 by Tom Deighan
Our modern version of the Nativity celebrates the inconspicuous arrival of the Savior of the World in a barn hidden in a tiny town in a dusty outpost of the Roman Empire – witnessed only by Jesus’ parents, a few wise men, and a handful of shepherds. The narrative affirms our own romantic notions celebrating underdogs, but the story of Christ’s birth is not a Horatio Alger story. It is a tinder that burned hot enough to spark a fire that divided history.
Anyone from a small town understands a place like Bethlehem. Nothing goes unnoticed, and news spreads fast. Even if you are from a big city, you have seen news ripple through your neighborhoods, churches, and workplaces. Common sense alone should at least make us question the premise that Jesus entered the world so inconspicuously.
A decree by Caesar, enforceable by the world’s most powerful army compelled thousands of Jewish families to converge on tiny Bethlehem. Neither the most treacherous travel conditions imaginable nor the unbearable financial burden of the journey could excuse families from making the trip. In addition to the dangers of traveling in the ancient world, travelling presented special problems for devout Jews, bound by Mosaic laws for cleanliness, Sabbath restrictions on travel, and kosher food requirements. This was a trip no one desired, but who could defy Rome? And who could easily forget such an ordeal?
Descendants of David must have packed Bethlehem wall-to-wall, all relatives of each other – a giant family reunion – and everyone knows how families get along. People arrived after dangerous journeys to find the markets bare of food, the town infrastructure overwhelmed, and the inns full. The lucky ones stayed with family; the less fortunate slept outside. This trip definitely made it into the photo album.
Add to this spectacle a caravan of exotic dignitaries arriving amid the chaos: Royal Magi transporting valuable gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Such wealth and opulence would not arrive on three camels in the dead of night, for they wouldn’t have survived a day on the road without being robbed and possibly killed for their valuables. Dignitaries such as this required soldiers, servants, slaves, caravans of camels, supplies, food! Such an entourage would turn heads anywhere in the ancient world. We can imagine that heads exploded when the Magi arrived in tiny Bethlehem.
Yes, we can accept that Christ arrived anonymously and without fanfare. The young family might have even enjoyed several quiet days, recuperating from the journey and birth, hidden to the crowds around them. A truly inauspicious beginning . . .
. . . until everyone realized that the Magi had come to find the newly born King of the Jews
. . . until people heard that the strange new star led them straight to Bethlehem
. . .until shepherds arrived with tales of angelic multitudes
. . . until word spread that the Messiah had been born, and the desperate masses mobbed the new family
. . . until the family disappears and Herod begins killing children in a mad quest to find the Jesus child.
In a town full of bored out-of-towners, word spread like wildfire about the event. Rumor or not, it was worth checking out and worth talking about. Jesus captivated the entire town. Debates arose, and scriptures were quoted. We can imagine the discussions surrounding a savior from Galilee. We hear the coffee-shop talk about the fortune given to the young family. Uneducated shepherds confirmed the predictions of scholars in Jerusalem. Everyone was fascinated with this Jesus, and if his name was not instantly famous enough, Herod ensured the people in the area would never forget Him by killing all the boys to eliminate this supposed king of the Jews.
We cannot fathom the impact of our savior’s birth or exaggerate the impression it made. A show-stopping spectacle in a tiny hamlet full of bored visitors. Royalty . . . heavenly signs . . . angelic visions . . . claims that this baby was King! And as the census concluded, the multitudes carried this tale to their hometowns. Updates on this Jesus were in demand, all over Israel, making lasting impressions, but when Roman soldiers starting killing little boys, Jesus’ name became unforgettable.
Imagine the suspicion Joseph and Mary faced when they returned to Nazareth after Herod’s death. Imagine entire towns without little boys Jesus’ age! That’s the little boy the shepherds talk about – Jesus of Nazareth – the boy born in Bethlehem. The boy the soldiers tried to kill! Imagine the impact of his arrival: A child whose birth turned Bethlehem upside down during the Great Census. A child who attracted the attention of visiting royalty and the wrath of a king. A child with no boys his age. A child, without a doubt, known to everyone in Palestine. A child rumored to be King of the Jews, the Messiah! By any stretch of the imagination, could such events be contained within a peaceful manger?
Jesus’ earthly ministry unfolded in a corridor about ninety miles long, so we can imagine the impact in our own small towns as a motorcade of dignitaries descended on the local hospital, looking for the King of the Jews. Jesus stood out from day one. He was instantly famous, or more accurately, infamous. The idea that Christ’s first 30 years unfolded in obscurity has always bothered me. His birth divided history and shook an empire. Jesus of Nazareth turned his entire world upside down, even as a little baby.
Don’t throw out the manger scene this Christmas, but cherish it as the last moment of calm in Jesus’ ministry here on Earth. That silent night simply marked his first lonely steps toward the cross. The first Christmas began as an expectation, grew into a spectacle, became Israel’s focus, unleashed an unimaginable aftermath, and turned legend. And ultimately, The Saga of the First Christmas divided history.
Copyright Tom Deighan All Rights Reserved