By Jeff Westover
Many assume that Joseph chose a stable for their housing while in Bethlehem because the village was over populated with visitors. But the scriptures do not indicate that was the fact. The scripture says "...because there was no room for them in the inn."
Why? Was it merely because Mary was "great with child"? Or was it because of the fact that Joseph and Mary may not have been known to be husband and wife? What was the great exception "for them"? Were they in some way discriminated against or was their ability to find adequate accomodations merely impeded by the circumstances of too many people and not enough room? The scriptures do not say but they nevertheless paint a humble image of where they had to make history.
We can only speculate about how they felt under the circumstances. They knew by prophecy that Jesus was to be born there. The physical realities were plain to them and others around them. But what could they have felt as Joseph set about to make the stalls intended for animals a suitable place for Mary and a newborn? As he cleared the dung and debris, did Joseph question? Did he murmur -- is this to be the birthplace of our Savior?
The moment was at hand. And while they set about the business of welcoming the baby alone in the world-- Mary, a teenager and Joseph, probably not much older -- did they know how many in the world would be made immediately aware of what was transpiring?
Close by, "shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night", were startled from their late night duties by the appearance of an angel-- the third time now recorded of heavenly visitation to mortals in the Christmas story.
But unlike the previous circumstances, the angel did not appear to someone central to the event. These were not priests. These may not have been men learned of the scriptures. These were shepherds who knew mostly work and may have never contemplated miracles in their natural lives. They were "sore afraid". But clearly they had some spiritual inclinations and core beliefs. Their immediate and passionate response to the "heavenly hosts" they witnessed caused them to spread the story of the miracle birth "abroad".
Far away to east, in a land far from the Jews and amongst a people who knew little of them, "wise" men gazed at the sky that night and saw a brilliant star. Historians are certain these "wise" men were not learned in the scriptures. Biblical scholars surmise they were likely men of science and watchers of stars. But with so many characters in the story being led spiritually surrounding these events we cannot conclude that these men were not spiritually endowed as well.
How they came to know that the star represented the birth of a King we do not know. Why they felt compelled to come to a strange land to see the Baby King we are not told. But like the shepherds they responded to the miracle shown them in the skies that night. They were driven to come worship. Men impressed by scientific study do not necessarily engage in such spiritual endeavors. These "wise" men were clearly spiritually in tune to the great events happening in a distant land and amongst a strange people.
Farther still, in the western hemisphere, to a people who Christ would later refer to as "other sheep I have, which are not of this fold" , the birth of the Messiah was made evident by the absence of darkness:
"And it came to pass that there was no darkness in all that night, but it was as light as though it was mid-day...and they knew that it was the day that the Lord should be born, because of the sign which had been given."
The birth of Christ was a global event, though Joseph and Mary likely felt alone at the time. But the scene could only be described as reminiscent of that great first Christmas celebrated in the pre-mortal world where all the souls of man and stars of heaven "shouted for joy" :
"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
If Mary and Joseph felt alone it was but for a short while only. For the shepherds "came with haste" to Bethlehem to witness the Child spoken of by the angel. It was then that Mary and Joseph knew that their secret was a secret no longer. They became celebrities of a sort because the shepherds had made known the miracle as it transpired for them and followed the command of the angel to spread the news of "glad tidings of great joy".
As with many new parents, Joseph and Mary's plans were a little up in the air. How much time Mary needed to recover or if Joseph had prepared a proper housing for them immediately elsewhere is not known. From what we read in the scriptures, Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem for as long as two years after the birth of Jesus.
Though the great, heralded event had passed the story of Christmas is not over. Modern Christmas telling of the tale freezes an improper image of the scene. There were no shepherds or wisemen at the actual scene where Jesus was born. During this time, the wise men of Christmas lore (the true number of their party is not clearly known, there could have been two of them, three or perhaps as many as a dozen) found their way to Jerusalem.
Imagine the stir they must have caused! The story of Christmas, with their arrival in Jerusalem, now takes a sinister turn. The forces of evil almost immediately lay seige to all participants thus far in the Christmas story. But there were miracles yet to experience, angels yet to visit, and high drama yet to go through before the story of Christmas closes. But now the focus turns to these mysterious visitors "from the East".