The Saga of the First Christmas: The Spectacle
Act Two: The Spectacle of the First Christmas
Modern depictions of the Nativity oversimplify scriptural and historical realities, and nothing illustrates this better than the arrival of the Magi-Kings. In order to appreciate the potential impact of their visit, we need only consider the great Magi-King Tiridates I of Armenia, who made a trip to Rome in 66 AD. Three-thousand horsemen accompanied him and his massive entourage, so impressive that his arrival was known as Golden Day due to its unprecedented size and gallantry. The Magi King’s visit completely captivated Rome, the brazen and unimpressible center of the modern world. If one magi shook up Rome so much, just imagine the impact of several Magi visiting tiny Bethlehem. If Tiridates I captured Rome’s imagination, Bethlehem must have been stupefied, even if their arrival was a fraction of the spectacle. And since they came specifically to see the Messiah, everyone would be watching whom they visited, and whom they identified as King of the Jews.
The popular Christmas song identifies them as kings; Matthew identifies them as wise men or magi (2:1), depending on your translation. Whoever they were, however, they clearly travelled a long way; they were rich, and they held high enough office to merit King Herod’s audience. They were likely nowhere near the status of Tiridates I, but few historians doubt they were of royal class. As such, our quaint image of three lone figures riding camels in the moonlight may be a little unrealistic: “We three kings of Orient are bearing gifts we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and mountain . . .” At a minimum, the popular Christmas song leaves room for some possibilities.
All travel in that time was extremely dangerous, and the dangers only increased for people of rank, status, or means. They needed protection, for they carried expensive gifts, and they needed servants for that protection. Those servants needed provisions. They needed to cook. They needed to tend the animals. They needed to set up camp. Simply put, they needed an entourage, and while they might not have traveled with 3,000 horsemen, they were no doubt a sight to see coming into the little town of Bethlehem.
It was the ancient equivalent of Air Force One landing unexpectedly in a dusty town in Western Oklahoma . . . during the county fair . . . in the midst of a massive crisis that brought thousands of visitors to town unexpectedly. Few historians believe these things all happened in a single night, as our modern Christmas traditions indicate. The span of time could have been as long as two years . . . two full years of people looking for the Messiah in a tiny town outside Jerusalem. Bethlehem would never be the same.
At first, the locals probably enjoyed the excitement; after all, Bethlehem was David’s home and deserved some credit. Everyone was in town in order to comply with the census, so it was a massive family reunion. As nice as the attention may have been at first, however, people tire of visitors quickly. On top of that, the local infrastructure must have been overwhelmed with so many outsiders. The inconvenience alone would have burned it into their collective memory; but it was not only the stress and pageantry of the Magi that made it memorable. The locals also had their own fantastic experiences about the birth of The Messiah.
Shepherds rushed into town, describing the entire night sky turned to daylight with angels: “Behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid . . . suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.” (Luke 2:9-13) Without a doubt, Bethlehemites would never forget when the Messiah was born in their hometown. Neither would the thousands of visitors who heard about it, and they would take those stories back to their homes, all across Judea. The name of Jesus spread like wildfire.
King Herod, foreign Royalty, Jewish leaders, and even lowly shepherds all swarmed Bethlehem with the same, exact questions: “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2) This continued for up to two full years, one unbelievable occurrence after another. Not only was all of Jerusalem and all of Bethlehem electric with expectation of the Messiah, but due to the census, untold thousands took the tales back to their hometowns. And since Jerusalem was a major center for trade, people from countless lands heard and shared these fantastic tales of a future king being born in a barn. Mary and Joseph’s baby quickly became the center of attention.
Soon after this mysterious child was born, names of his parents and their hometown of Nazareth began to emerge. People began putting the pieces together – Zacharias seeing an angel in the Temple . . . Bethlehem . . .the arrival of the Magi . . .tales from the shepherds . . .Daniel’s prophecies of the Seventy Weeks. Too many coincidences lined up for people to forget this Jesus, whose mere birth turned the Jewish world upside down. He captivated Herod the King, Rome’s representative. He captured the attention of the chief priests and scribes. Angels heralded His arrival. Foreign Magi traveled great distances to celebrate His birth, and Jesus of Nazareth was at the center of this amazing spectacle.
Our traditional views of The Nativity are peaceful, quaint, and private, but Scripture, history, and common sense paint an entirely different picture. The first Christmas may have unfolded in barn in an unknown town in a forsaken land, but it did not unfold secretively. If anything, it was a nuclear explosion, bright enough and loud enough to capture the imagination of everyone who heard of the Child Jesus. And that impression did not disappear with the crowds.
Christ’s birth divided history, not only in retrospect but also in real time. His arrival was not hidden and serene. It was a political, religious, and social mushroom cloud that nobody could ignore. His birth created such a stir that the names of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would be on the lips of people for a generation. While the family may have hidden away at times, people would undoubtedly recall the name of Jesus and all that happened at his birth, even thirty years later. Just imagine the renewed rumors as John the Baptist started his ministry, and just imagine when Jesus exploded on the scene as an adult, performing great miracles. Even all those years later, the Spectacle of the First Christmas would not have been forgotten, nor the name of Jesus of Nazareth. The impact of that first Christmas endured for decades, and Jesus never escaped it.
Copyright Tom Deighan, All Rights Reserved