The Third Joyful Mystery, the Birth of Jesus at Bethlehem

Anthony Zimmerman
January 14, 2003
Reproduced with Permission

Should Caesar be obeyed?: Had it been me, and not Mary and Joseph, who heard the town crier give orders over the megaphone to drop everything and respond to Caesar's census decree, I would maybe have balked. We wonder how Mary and Joseph may have responded. Did Joseph perhaps suggest to Mary that they should simply stay home because she is pregnant, and because God stands above Caesar? And did Mary respond that it is best to not make waves, but to blend in smoothly with the world of Caesar and of God? At any rate, they did not balk but set out to travel much of the same road again that Mary had traveled with such joy only nine months before:

And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled. This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David, To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child.

Company on the journey to Bethlehem: Did any other people in Nazareth belong to the house and family of David who may therefore have traveled with Joseph and Mary? Likely so, since tribal relatives tended to form neighborhoods. The Gospels also mention the closely knit extended family to which Mary and Joseph belonged: "Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?" (Matthew 13:55-56).

These would be cousins of Jesus, not siblings, although in Hebrew usage close relatives were also called siblings. Mary's sister would stand under the cross to give her comfort some thirty three years later. Her name may have been Salome, and if so, she would be the mother of James and John, sons of Zebedee, first cousins to Jesus, who lived not in Nazareth but along the lake shore not far from Capharnaum. Mary and Joseph told them nothing, of course, about the miraculous origin of Jesus if they traveled together to Bethlehem.

The brothers of Jesus: The Gospels point to a good clan relationship with these "brothers and sisters of Jesus." With Mary and Jesus they spent time together in Capharnaum (Jn. 2:12). However, it was not easy for them to believe in the divinity of Christ. Where were these "brothers" when Jesus was in danger from fellow Nazarenes: "And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong" (Luke 4:29). The Gospels do not tell us that. Later they advised Him to be more politically assertive, although "Even his brothers did not believe in him" (John 7:5).

Their close contact with Mary did not break off, however, even after the crucifixion, and we find them finally in the group of believers in the Upper Room before Pentecost: "All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers" (Acts 1:14). Their journey of faith must have been a difficult one, and perhaps Mary's example and urging encouraged them to make this final and heroic step of faith.

No special privileges: Back to Caesar's decree of the census now, and Mary's condition. One would think that some of these relatives might have gone ahead to find a suitable lodging for Mary and Joseph in consideration of her impending delivery. That this was not the case may indicate that their social condition was not high up among the elite of the city, and everyone considered them as very ordinary citizens who should fend for themselves. Just as Jesus did not pull rank, so they too were satisfied to be just one of us ordinary people: "Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:6-8).

Three cheers for Mary and Joseph, then, for making this ninety mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, just at a time when Mary would most need the familiarity of home surroundings and the help of neighbors. The commentaries I have seen say nothing about where they stayed at night during the several day journey, but we can suppose that along the main route to Jerusalem, a route used frequently by pilgrims, there would be group lodgings that were serviceable if not entirely comfortable.

Finding a suitable lodging: Bethlehem was beyond Jerusalem, however, and the lodgings may have been grabbed by earlier arrivals, descendants of King David. Joseph asked Mary to excuse him for the predicament, as he was not wealthy and could not pull rank. So they made the most of the situation. A busy hostel with many comings and goings would not be a good setting for what lay ahead. Did friendly residents advise them, or how did they find this cozy spot that was known to the shepherds? Commentator Fred B. Craduck describes the situation as follows:

The guestroom was apparently occupied and hence offered no privacy, so Mary and Joseph withdraw to the stable underneath or in back of the house, perhaps in a cave. A feeding trough served as a crib" (Harper's Bible Commentary, p. 1017).

And there occurred the most important event of cosmic history, the Birth of Jesus at Bethlehem:

The Holy Night: "And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn" (Luke 2:6-7).

The Divine set a human foot upon earthly soil, and deigned to dwell with us. Joseph and Mary were awed in the presence of the Divinity packaged before them as a baby. The Father and the Spirit were with the Son in the cave, rejoicing in His Personal Incarnation.

From eternity the Father had spoken to the Son: "Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee" (Hebrews 1:5). Now Father greeted the Son with the self-same words in His new human addition. Jesus, with His created soul, welcomed the greeting of His Father and responded:

Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure. Then I said, 'Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,' as it is written of me in the roll of the book (Hebrews 10:5-7).

The Father honored His Beloved, as He had done from eternity:

Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of thy hands; they will perish, but thou remainest; they will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle thou wilt roll them up, and they will be changed. But thou art the same, and thy years will never end... Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet (Heb 1:10-13).

The task that remained ahead for the New Born was to make the cosmos His own, and then to present it finally to the Father: "When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one" (1 Cor 15:28).

Mary, the Mother of God: And Mary tastes the joy of being the mother of this Child who is the maker of heaven and earth. Divine joys streaming from the overshadowing of God enhance the human joys of her motherhood. A mother of eight children once spoke of the inimitable joy of being a mother:

The greatest joy and fulfillment of a woman is precisely in having this child - this little one, this miracle of life. Holding her newborn baby is such a stirring experience for a woman that words can hardly express it. Here is this little one, so perfect, so close, so loving - and he is totally dependent on you. There is just nothing in the world that can be more rewarding to a woman - nothing! Not fame, not ability, not money, not acclaim. This is it! She is happy; she is fulfilled.

We honor Mary, the Mother of God: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners."

Let the angels worship Him: The glow of the presence of the Holy Spirit enlightens the silent night. Then God in heaven issues the order: "Let all God's angels worship him" (Heb 1:6). Not far away the sky opened and the chorus of angels sang out to the shepherds below praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" (Luke 2:11-12),

Shortly thereupon shepherds were at the door, breathless and excited: "We seek a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." Joseph beckoned for them to come in, and then Mary showed them the Child:

And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them (Luke 2:16-20).

We ponder Jesus as a Baby, a helpless Child looking for our welcome: And so began the most wonderful life of the Son of God on this earth, now also the Son of Mary, entrusted to her care together with that of His foster father Joseph. That Jesus, Son of God, is a Baby, is lesson that we proud people must contemplate again and again, to remember our proper relationship to God our Creator.

We ponder the mystery with Mary and Joseph, and pray that the darkness of sin and the night of heathenism may vanish before the light of the Word and the Spirit of grace. With Pope John Paul II, in His Christmas Message Urbi et Orbi of the year 2002, we pray:

Adorable mystery of the Incarnate Word;
Together with you, O Virgin Mother,
may we stop and reflect at the manger where Jesus lies,
to share with your amazement
at the immense "condescension" of God.
Grant us your own eyes, O Mary,
that we may understand the mystery,
hidden within the frail limbs of your Son.
Teach us to recognize his face
in the children of every race and culture.
Help us to be credible witnesses of his message;
of peace and love,
so that the men and women of our own time,
still torn by conflicts and unspeakable violence,
may also recognize in the Child
cradled in your arms
the one Saviour of the world,
the endless source of that true peace
for which every heart profoundly yearns.
Natus est nobis, Salvator mundi.