Cesar Augustus,the master bookkeeper of the world, sat in his palace by the Tiber. Before him was stretched a map labelled Orbis Terrarum, Imperium Romanum. He was about to issue an order for a census of the world; for all the nations of the civilized world were subject to Rome.
Joseph, the builder, an obscure descendant of the great King David, was obliged by that very fact to register in Bethlehem, the city of David. In accordance with the edict, Mary and Joseph set out from the village of Nazareth for the village of Bethlehem, which lies about five miles on the other side of Jerusalem. Five hundred years earlier the Prophet Micheas had prophesied concerning that little village: And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel (5.2; Mt. 2.6).
Joseph was full of expectancy as he entered the city of his family, and was quite convinced that that He would have no difficulty in finding lodgings for Mary, particularly on account of Her condition. Joseph went from house to house only to find each one crowded. He searched in vain for a place where He, to Whom heaven and earth belonged, might be born. Could it be that the Creator would not find a home among us? Up a steep hill he climbed to the village inn. There, above all other places, he would surely find shelter but there was no room for Him Who came to be the Inn of every homeless heart in the world; in fact, there was room for anyone who had a coin to give the innkeeper. When finally the scrolls of history are completed down to the last words in time, the saddest line of all will be: There was no room for them in the inn (Lk. 2.7).
Out to the hillside to a stable cave, where shepherds sometimes drove their flocks in time of storm, Joseph and Mary went at last for shelter. There, in a place of peace in the lonely abandonment of a cold windswept cave; there, under the floor of the world, He Who will be born without a mother in heaven, will be born without father on earth.
Of every other child that is born into the world, friends can say that he resembles his mother. This will be the first instance in time that anyone could say that the mother resembled the Child. This is the beautiful paradox of the Child Who made His Mother. It would also be the first time in history of this world that anyone could ever think of heaven as being anywhere else than ‘somewhere up there’; when the Child will be in Her arms, Mary would now look down to Heaven.
In the filthiest place in the world, a stable, Purity would be born. He, Who was later to be slaughtered by men acting as beasts, would be born among beasts. He, Who would call Himself the Living Bread which came down from heaven (Jn. 6.51), was laid in a manger, literally, a place to eat. Centuries before, the Jews had worshipped the golden calf, and the Greeks, the ass. Men worshipped and sacrificed before them as before God. The ox and the ass were now present to make their innocent reparation, bowing down before their God.
There was no room in the inn, but there was room in the stable. The inn is the gathering place of public opinion, the focal point of the world’s moods, the rendezvous of the worldly, the rallying place of the popular and the successful. But the stable is a place for the outcasts, the ignored, the forgotten. The world might have expected the Son of God to be born – if He was to be born at all – in an inn. A stable would be the last place in the world where one would have looked for Him. Divinity is always where one least expects to find it.
No worldly mind would ever have suspected that He Who could make the sun warm the earth would one day have need of an ox and an ass to warm Him with their breath; that He, Who, in the language of Scripture, could stop the turning about of Arcturus would have His birthplace dictated by an imperial census; that He, Who clothed the fields with grass, would Himself be naked; that He, from Whose hands came planets and worlds, would one day have tiny arms that were not long enough to touch the huge heads of the cattle; that the feet which trod the everlasting hills would one day be too weak to walk; that the Eternal Word would be dumb; that Omnipotence would be wrapped in swaddling-clothes; that Salvation would lie in a manger – no one would ever have suspected that God coming to this earth would ever be so helpless. And that is precisely why so many miss Him. Divinity is always where one least expects to find it.
For the Creator to come among His creatures and be ignored by them; for God to come among His own and not be received by His own; for God to be homeless at home – that could only mean one thing to the worldly-minded: the Babe could not have been God at all. And that is just why they missed Him and still miss Him. Divinity is always where one least expects to find it.
The Son of God about to be made man would be invited to enter His own world through a back door. About to be exiled from the earth, He would be born under the earth, in a cave, and there He would shake the proud civilization to its very foundations.
Because He would be born in a cave, all who would wish to see Him must learn how to stoop. To stoop is the mark of humility. The proud refuse to stoop and, therefore, they miss Divinity. Those, however, who would bend their egos and enter, will find they are not in a cave at all, but in a new universe where sits a Babe on His mother’s lap, with the world poised on His fingers.
At this point, it would do very well, dear faithful and readers, who may have been used already to see the sweetness of the scene in the manger, to discern this: the Holy Infant will already bear His Cross – the only cross a Babe could bear, a cross of poverty, exile and limitation. His sacrificial intent will already shine forth in the message the angels will sing upon the hills of Bethlehem: For, this day, is born to you a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David (Lk. 2.11). Covetousness would be challenged by His poverty, while pride will be confronted with the humiliation of a stable. The swathing of Divine power, which needs to accept no bounds, is often too great a tax upon minds which think only of power. They cannot grasp the idea of Divine condescension, or of the ‘rich man becoming poor that through His poverty, we might be rich’. Men shall have no greater sign of Divinity than the absence of power as they expect it – the spectacle of a Babe Who said He would come in the clouds of heaven, now will be wrapped in the cloths of earth.
He, Whom the angels call the Son of the Most High, will descend into the red dust from which we all were born, to be one with weak, fallen man in all things, save sin. And it is the swaddling-clothes which shall constitute His ‘sign’. If He Who Is Omnipotence will come with thunderbolts, there will be no sign. There is no sign unless something happens contrary to nature. The brightness of the sun is no sign, but an eclipse is. He said that on the last day, His coming would be heralded by ‘signs in the sun’, perhaps an extinction of light. At Bethlehem the Divine Son will go into an eclipse, so that only the humble of spirit might recognize Him.
Only two classes of people would find the Babe: the shepherds and the Wise Men; the simple and the learned; those who knew that they knew nothing, and those who knew that they did not know everything. He is never seen by the man of one book; never by the man who thinks he knows. Not even God can tell the proud anything! Only the humble can find God!