The long search for a babe in Bethlehem
In order to better understand the circumstances surrounding the special birth of 2,000 years ago we’ve just celebrated, let us look further into the cultural requirements and traditions of the time.
We can recognize, for example, a profound shift in recognition of women as significant players in the history of the Jewish people. Only two of the four gospels include an account of the birth of Jesus. Matthew follows the tradition of beginning a story of someone’s birth with genealogy.
Rather than following the customary pattern of naming only the men while tracing lineage, however, the gospel of Matthew takes the unusual positions of defining the lineage through Jesus’ mother and including a number of women ancestors. It is also interesting that the other women named were all foreigners, i.e. non-Jewish natives of other countries.
So Matthew’s litany of “begots” tells us Abraham begot Isaac Isaac begot Jacob, begot…, begot… begot… all the way to Matthan begot Jacob and Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.
You probably remember that when this Mary learned her relative Elizabeth, who had already been named “the Barren One,” was going to have a baby, she made the arduous trip to Ein Karen to pay a visit.
Now, Ein Karem happens to be the village to which the Biblical Resource Study Center relocated while I was a volunteer docent there. Located in this village, in a far western corner of Jerusalem, is The Church of the Visitation, built to honor the memory of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. I remember with delight the highly unusual feature of this beautiful church – marvelous art throughout, portraying women who were significant to the history of the developing Christian church.
Our nativity stories speak of shepherds coming to visit the newborn baby with their sheep at their sides. Many of us have a notion of sheep as sweet little creatures with their wooly fur and cute little faces. My sense of those lovely animals was jolted in 1978 while I was traveling around Ireland with a pair of Roman Catholic nuns. It was raining as we climbed a steep hill and when we noticed a shepherd climbing that hill on foot we all agreed it would be a nice gesture and would give us a connection with a shepherd’s life if we offered the gentleman a lift. Once he was on board, however, although we engaged him in conversation, we practically held our breath until his departure; the stench was nearly unbearable.
Such overpowering aromas probably contributed to the fact that in Biblical times, sheep-herding was considered the absolute lowliest of occupations and shepherds were detested. Somewhat akin to the attitude of modern folks toward garbage collectors. Does it give you pause to recognize the irony of the selection of a group of hated shepherds to receive the first announcement of the birth of Jesus the Christ?
It seems logical that such men had ready access to the cave where Jesus made his entrance into our world. When I attended Christmas Eve services in a cave in Shepherd’s Field near Bethlehem it was quite easy to imagine folks watching their flocks in the surrounding hills drawn one evening to a cave so close at hand. Although the odor would not have been a surprise to Mary, I can imagine that the exhausted mother might have been only too happy to watch the shepherds depart when the time came.
Now let’s look at what we know and some of what we don’t know about the visit of the magi. We do not actually know the number of persons in the party. Scripture often uses the number three to represent “many” which could indicate as few as three. We do know that as the travelers came to the major city of Jerusalem, they would have considered it proper protocol to visit royalty there.
We also know this King Herod was known for his vicious cruelty. He had actually ordered the execution of some of his own sons for fear of losing his throne! His name brought terror into the hearts of his subjects. So when the Holy Family received the magi as guests, you can just imagine how they felt when the visitors casually mentioned they had not only called upon Herod, but had actually revealed to him that they were on a search for a child destined to be king.
All sense of security must have vanished in an instant. Joseph likely started asking himself questions the minute he heard the words. Had the magi been followed? How far behind might the king’s soldiers be? Where could they run without any money for a journey?
Can you picture the magi observing the fright on the faces of Mary and Joseph. It wouldn’t take them long to realize they had inadvertently created a terrifying situation. Can you imagine them putting their heads together outside the hearing of the worried couple to question how they might contribute to the well-being and safety of the little family? Perhaps it was then that the gifts came forth, as it would normally be rather extraordinary to offer very expensive gifts to such humble peasant people. Could it be that the gifts were offered as a means to finance an escape to a nearby country?
When our crèche scenes show the shepherds and the three wise men all visiting the infant Jesus at the same time it may be lovely and inspiring. It is also inconsistent with the Scriptures.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us Herod was exceedingly angry when he realized he’d been duped and those three stately visitors had no intention of returning to report on the whereabouts of the little child. So he “sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.
It looks as though Jesus was around two years of age when the regal trio arrived on the scene. So take the visitors from the East out of your manger scene for a couple of days. Save their magical appearance on the doorstep of the Holy Family for the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Better take the animals away, too, because by that time, the family unit was surely living in a home.
Blessings on your home for the new year of 2012.