In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
These seven verses sketch the framework of a familiar scene. Luke tells us of a man and woman with a newborn infant. They are in a stable, and have put the child is in a feeding trough for the animals, because the inn in which they had hoped to find shelter was full. In the verses that immediately follow the evangelist tells us of the arrival at the stable of shepherds who learned of the birth while tending their flocks and have come to see the child. Matthew adds a few more details, telling us of wise men from the East who, prompted by the appearance of a star, have come to Bethlehem seeking the baby. They have brought the infant extravagant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
From these spare accounts the human heart has constructed a wonderful tableau. Now we see a wondering mother and haloed child with Joseph standing apart, looking lovingly at them both. On one side shepherds with their crooks and a few sheep kneel in awe. On the other, three exotically dressed Eastern potentates lay before the manger their gifts; beyond them are the camels that bore them on their voyage. At the rear of the stable a cow, placidly chewing its cud, gazes at the child. Near it is a donkey and perhaps a goat. Angels hover above the stable roof and over all shines the star.
In the 1950s, when I was growing up in Davenport, Iowa, replicas of this marvelous scene would appear on every church lawn soon after Thanksgiving. In church fellowship halls and elementary school auditoriums the tableau would come to life. Small shepherds in their fathers’ bathrobes and miniature magi in towel turbans would act out their parts. Our family has a beloved crèche, mismatched and battered, that we played with as children and with our own children. At Westminster our annual Christmas pageant acts out some version of this vision, once again reminding us of the hope embodied in the young people of our congregation.
But it is important, at least on occasion, to lift the vivid veil of familiarity with which this scene has become adorned and to try to see clearly the true source of the hope and light we so badly need and so eagerly await. Mary and Joseph – an unwed mother and a laborer – were at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. They find themselves in a stable, as Luke easily could have written, because no one cared enough to make room in the inn for a pregnant woman. This unknown couple, the woman obviously on the verge of giving birth, must have been seen by the innkeeper and his guests to be among the lowest of the low, strangers, unwelcome and appropriately relegated to the cold and filth of the hovel out behind the inn.
When we consider this scene, we remember what Jesus says of the coming judgment. He tells those who would inherit the Kingdom of God, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” When they say they cannot remember doing anything of the sort, we will also recall his response, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” He ought to know. Jesus was born among and spent his life on earth serving “the least of these.”
And so He comes to us each Christmas.
“The Shepherd’s Pipe Carol”
Words and Music by John Rutter
Performed by The Cambridge Singers