FOR A FEW months after their marriage, Joseph and Mary lived in their little house at Nazareth. Joseph worked at his trade as a carpenter, while Mary cared for the home and carried the water for the needs of the house from the well in the middle of the village, walking with her jar full of water on her head.
One day Joseph came home and told his wife that he had been called to go on a journey to Bethlehem, which was the town from which their family had come. Both Joseph and Mary, as we have seen, had sprung from the line of the great King David, who had been born in Bethlehem more than a thousand years before. Every one who belonged to the line of David, wherever he might be living, looked upon Bethlehem as the hometown of his family.
The Emperor Augustus at Rome, who ruled over all the lands and was above Herod, the king of Judea, had given orders that a list should be made of all the families in his wide empire. He wished to lay a tax upon every family; that is, to call upon every family to pay money for the support of his officers, his army, his court; and in order to fix this tax, he must have written down the names of all the people.
In our land such a list is made every ten years, and is called a census. With us, men are chosen in every city and town to go to the people where they live and make the list of their names. From all the states throughout the land, these lists are sent to, one office, and there the names are arranged in order.
But the Romans who were ruling the world at that time chose a plan for making this great list which would give themselves the least trouble, even though it gave to the people under them much more trouble, and compelled them to make long journeys. Instead of appointing in each place an officer to take the names of the people at the places where they were living, they made a law that every family must go to the city or town from which they or their fathers had come, and there give their names to the officers who were making the roll of the people. Those who were living in Jerusalem, and had come from Shechem or Joppa or Caesarea, must journey to one of these places and there make their report; those who were living in Nazareth and had come, or their parents before them had come, from any other plat, must go to their home-town, however far it might be, and in that place be enrolled or written upon the list of names.
There is no reason to suppose that Mary, although herself sprung from the family of David, was compelled to make this journey to Bethlehem with her husband. The Roman laws took very little notice of women, unless they were rich women who could be taxed. Joseph could go alone to Bethlehem, and there have both their names written upon the list. But at once a thought came to Mary, and she said to her husband:
“You shall not make the journey to Bethlehem alone. I will go with you.”
We are not told why the young wife was resolved to go with her husband on the long journey, but the reason may have been this: Mary knew that she was to have a son, and the time for his coming was now near at hand. She knew, too, that her child should be the Son of David and the King of Israel, that he was to sit on David’s throne. She wished him to be born, not in the village of Nazareth in Galilee, but in David’s own town of Bethlehem. He was to spring from the royal line, and she was willing to endure a hard, trying journey, and even to suffer, that her son might come from the royal city where David lived. Mary had read the books of the Old Testament, and she knew that in those books it had been written by the prophets, to whom God had spoken, that this king, whom they called Messiah and Christ, should be born in Bethlehem. These were the reasons that made Mary decide so quickly to go with her husband on his journey to Bethlehem, the city of their fathers.
So Joseph locked up his carpenter’s shop and set his wife upon an ass, and with a staff walked beside her, over the mountain and down the valley to the river Jordan, and thence following the river, over the Roman road, the same long road that Mary had taken in the caravan or company of pilgrims some months before. Joseph had been over that road many times, going up every year to the feasts at Jerusalem, so that he knew all the places which they passed, and could tell Mary stories of their people and the great events which had taken place on the mountains or in the cities as they came into view in their journey.
They stopped at Jericho, near the head of the Dead Sea, and there turned westward, climbing the mountains over the robber-haunted road, and reaching Jerusalem. Perhaps they rested a day or two in this city and then went over to the mount of Olives, past the village of Bethany; and six miles south of Jerusalem they entered the gate of Bethlehem.
They had no friends with whom they could stay in Bethlehem, and so they sought out the inn, or the khan, as it was called. This was a large building with rooms around an open court. In this court the animals and the baggage were placed, and the guests of the inn were in the rooms around it. But Joseph and Mary were not the only people who had come to Bethlehem to have their names enrolled or written upon the lists for the taxing. Others had reached the inn or khan before them. When they came the courtyard was filled with asses and camels and chariots and baggage, and all . the rooms around the court were crowded with visitors. Joseph found within the walls of the khan no place where his wife could rest after her long and wearisome ride.
But at last Joseph learned of a place where they might stay through the night and for a few days. It was only a cave, hollowed out in the hillside, used as a stable for cattle; but miserable as it was, Mary was glad to lie down upon the straw and rest. And in that cave-stable Mary’s child was born. She wrapped her little baby in such clothes as she could find at hand, and laid him for his first sleep in the manger where the oxen had fed. This was the lowly cradle of the Son of David, the King who was to rule over all the earth! King Herod in his palace did not know, and the Emperor Augustus at Rome did not dream, that in the humble stable at Bethlehem was lying a Prince who should reign over a realm vastly greater than Judea or the Roman Empire; that all the world should date their years from the year when that baby was born; and that his name would be praised long after their names had been forgotten.
But although neither King Herod, nor the Emperor Augustus, nor the high-priest and rulers in Jerusalem were there to welcome their new-born King, there were some visitors at his manger-cradle. In the open fields around Bethlehem were shepherds, watching at night over their flocks of sheep, just as, a thousand years before in the same fields, the young shepherd David had cared for his sheep, guarding them from wild beasts of the wilderness and from robbers.
Suddenly a great, dazzling light flashed upon these shepherds, and they saw, as Zacharias had seen by the altar, and as Mary had seen in Nazareth, a glorious angel standing before them. The shepherds were filled with fear and fell upon their faces on the ground, not daring to look up at the shining form. But the angel spoke to them kindly and graciously, saying:
“Do not be afraid, for I come with good news, which will make you glad; news for all God’s people. On this very night is born in yonder city of David, one who shall be the Saviour, even Christ your Lord and King. Would you wish to go and see this child? I will tell you how you can find him. Look for a newly-born baby wrapped in such clothes as babies wear, and lying, not in a cradle in a house, but in the manger of a stable, where the oxen and the asses are kept. There you will find the child who is to be the King of all the earth!”
While shepherds were listening to the words of this angel, they saw that the entire midnight sky over them was filled with a multitude of heavenly beings. The shepherds heard them sing:
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom God is well pleased.”
Then the vision faded away, the angelic host passed out of sight, and in the dark sky only the stars were shining above them. Then the shepherds said to each other :
“Let us leave our sheep here for a little while, and go to the village and see this wonderful thing that has come to pass. How good it is that the Lord has given this word to us, that we may be the first to look upon our King!”
It did not take the shepherds a long time to find the right stable and the manger, for Bethlehem was then only a small village. They came, opened the door, and found just what the angel had said they would see, a tiny baby lying in the manger, his mother hovering near, and Joseph watching over them both in tenderness.
They saw the royal little one, and bowed low around his manger cradle, then went again to their flocks in the field praising God for his goodness in sending the long promised King. The people to whom the shepherds told this story, wondered at it, hardly knowing whether to believe it or not; for this was not the way in which they looked for the King of Israel to come. They were expecting a prince to be born in a palace, not a working-woman’s child in a dark cave where cattle were kept.
But Mary, happy with her little one, clasped him to her heart and said nothing to anyone of the angel that had come to her in Nazareth, and of the promises given her about this child. When the day came to name the child, she simply said, “His name shall be Jesus,”. but she told no one why the name was given. It was a common name among the Jews, so no one was surprised at the name. But no word could tell better than his name “Jesus” what this child should become, for the word Jesus means “Saviour.”