If you go to church only once a year, Christmas Eve is probably the best time for it. Those familiar carols you've heard since kindergarten. The children's choirs or pageants, with one of the young angels sure to provoke a smile with a miscue or a slanting halo. The adult choir, at its best all year. The candlelight, which makes everything seem intimate, almost magical. And that old, old story.
Whether you believe the story is fact or fiction, there's no denying it is compelling. With its angels, shepherds, wise men, an unusual star, a stable birth, a king who turns to infanticide, gifts of gold and spices offered to a humble family's first child and a frantic flight into Egypt after a mysterious warning of impending doom, it has all the makings of a Steven Spielberg film.
Although Christians believe that hints and predictions of Jesus can be found throughout the Old Testament, the actual birth is mentioned in just two of the four gospels — Matthew and Luke. And each of those gives just part of the story. So let's synchronize them and recount the tale in modern language with some additional thoughts and questions. Here we go:
Mary and Joseph were two ordinary people who got betrothed. But problems soon developed, as an angel appeared to Mary and told her she would bear a child, the son of God. She did get pregnant, and Joseph knew he wasn't the father. If he revealed her condition, she would face death. But Joe loved Mary (think Romeo and Juliet) and so he decided to divorce her quietly.
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Rabbi Larry Moldo of Congregation Beth Shalom in Modesto said the ancient Jewish betrothal was much different than a modern engagement.
"It's the equivalent of the time between contracting to buy a house and the bank approving it," he said. "It's not yours yet, but no one else can bid on it. The sale is almost closed."
Because the betrothal was a financial transaction and technically a marriage, a divorce was necessary to end it, he said. In the old days, a betrothal would take place about a year before the wedding. Today, Jewish couples are often betrothed about an hour before the wedding ceremony.
Getting back to the biblical couple, an angel appeared to Joseph to say that Mary's pregnancy was due to God's miracle, not another man, and that Joe still should marry her. The angel also said (way before sonograms) that the baby would be a boy and that they should name him Jesus. He also would be known as Emmanuel, which means "God with us."
Then the occupying Roman officials ordered a mandatory census for tax purposes. Unlike our U.S. census, which takes note of you wherever you live, the biblical one forced everyone back to their tribal roots. Joe and Mary were from the tribe of David, Israel's most beloved king, so they had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, about 80 miles away through dangerous country.
Most pictures show Mary on a donkey, Joseph walking next to her. The Bible doesn't say how they got to Bethlehem — walking, on an animal, with a caravan — but traveling when you're nine months along is never an easy journey.
I moved with my husband and young son to Ceres two days before giving birth to our second son. That move was hard enough with all the modern conveniences. What was that long-ago journey like for Mary?
Bee columnist Jeff Jardine has horses and said getting on and off a donkey or horse would have been very difficult for any pregnant woman. Then there's the journey.
"Under any circumstance, a long trip at full term on the back of a burro would have to be painful, to say the least," he said. "Just hope it was a healthy animal with some body fat — not a skin-and-bones critter that would make for a rough ride for anyone, pregnant, anointed or otherwise. And those animals tend to bounce when they walk. No one will mistake them for a Tennessee walker when it comes to a smooth, comfortable gait."
However they traveled — experts estimate it would have taken a week or longer in Mary's condition — we know they arrived in Bethlehem, but had to stay in a stable "because there was no room in the inn."
Here's what I've always wondered: Why did they arrive too late to get a room? And why didn't their other relatives — the city was obviously full of them — practice the hospitality the Middle East is still known for and take them in?
I've always thought — and I'm no Bible expert, just a woman who's been pregnant during a move — that perhaps they waited as long as possible in Nazareth, hoping that Mary would give birth before taking that mandated journey. If they waited until the last moment, of course all the other rooms would have been taken.
As to that question of relatives, was it much different through the first half of the 1900s in the United States? Would an unmarried pregnant girl have been welcomed with open arms into most families?
Ahmad Kayello, imam of Modesto's Islamic Center, is a native of Lebanon.
"People from the Middle East are probably the most hospitable people you will meet," he said. "If you've heard the phrase, 'They will give you the shirt off their back,' that is how Middle Eastern people are. Different countries have different forms of hospitality, which includes offering a place to sleep, food to eat, financial help and so forth."
He did say the status of an unmarried pregnant woman might hinder that hospitality.
"If the matter related to me, I would not resolve to judgment or take it upon myself to cast a stone, but would try to fix the wrong and explain the consequences of such actions and help this person change and repent," he said.
The stigma must have been an even greater factor 2,000 years ago.
OK, isn't it time for another angel? Yep, and this one is joined by a whole flock of them. This time they shocked some shepherds in the field, announcing that on that very night, a child had been born — "the savior, Christ the Lord." So the shepherds ran and found the baby.
Why didn't the angels appear to the priests or the king or someone else higher up, someone who could proclaim this special birth? Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus is called the Lamb of God, and who better to recognize a lamb than a shepherd?
Jesus, in accord with Jewish tradition, was circumcised on the eighth day in Jerusalem, only a six-mile trek. The family returned to Bethlehem and the next event mentioned is the appearance of the wise men, who had been following some sort of special star. The Bible doesn't mention the number of wise men, but they brought with them three gifts — gold, incense and myrrh, all costly items fit for a king.
The Bible says the wise men visited Jesus' family in a house, not a stable. And the Roman ruler, King Herod, later sends out an edict to kill all the male boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2, so biblical scholars believe Jesus may have been 18 months to 2 years old when the wise men visited.
The wise men had stopped by Herod's place to get directions to find "the king of the Jews," so apparently the star had been clouded over for a while. Herod asked his own experts and was told, "Bethlehem," so he passed that on to the guys and told them to come back and tell him where they found this king, saying he wanted to worship the child, too.
But the wise men got a message not to go back. So after they had found Jesus and given their gifts, they went home another way. Joseph was warned in a dream to get Mary and Jesus out of there, and he moved the family to Egypt, beyond the long arm of Herod.
Several years later, Herod died and the family returned to Nazareth. That's where Jesus grew up and became a carpenter like his earthly dad. Jesus was pounding nails into wood long before nails were pounded into his hands on the cross.
But that's another story.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or firstname.lastname@example.org.