JESUS IS BORN IN BETHLEHEM
Joseph, and Mary his espoused wife,11 participated in the general movement of the children of Israel, and quitted Nazareth in Galilee to betake themselves, over a route of about eighty miles, to the city where was born their ancestor David. It was a long journey for a woman on the eve of confinement, but in the East journeys are made without haste, and the hospitality of the country permits the making of more than one stage upon the route. Besides this we have some reason to believe that Mary was exempt from the weaknesses of a painful pregnancy, since in her miraculous maternity she had been placed above the laws of nature. Besides, the enthusiasm of her soul was capable of dominating the fatigue of her body.
Full of the thought of God's intentions concerning her child, she journeys energetically on toward the place whither the prophecies of Israel summon her and to which she is drawn by the Messianic hope of the world. As she approaches the mountains of Juda, the great Biblical memories of Rachel, of Booz, of Ruth, of David, of which the tokens could be seen on all sides, cast a light of glory upon her providential mission, and, like new voices, tell her again and again of her greatness. The very child she bears in her chaste womb cannot remain silent, and in His divine language He inspires her with holiest enthusiasm. Each step of the young mother brings nearer the hour of the world's salvation; is not that sufficient to make her forget the fatigue of the road and surmount every obstacle?
When they arrived at Bethlehem, the gathering of people was immense, because of the census. The first comers had procured hospitality in the homes of their friends, or at the inns. The rest were lodged as best they could in the khan of the little town. The khan was probably the one that Chamaam, son of Berzellai of Galaad, had had built at Bethlehem.12 It was a station for caravans on the way to Egypt. What remains of it in the present Basilica of the Nativity can give no idea of what it was formerly.
The caravansary, such as it is today at KhanelAhmar, or at KhanYoubYouseph for example, and as it was, no doubt, formerly, is a great square constructed of blocks of stone roughly laid one upon the other, and divided into two distinct parts: a court where the cattle were stabled and a cloister under which were arranged small chambers for travelers. These chambers and those which formed the fore part, serving as entrance to the khan, constituted the inn properly so called. Even in this inn Joseph and Mary found no room. The only refuge remaining was in the excavations cut in the rocks against which ordinarily all caravansaries are built and where, when the nights are cold, the flocks take shelter instead of standing in the courtyard.
It was, in fact, into one of these grottoes13 common to man and beast, that Mary and Joseph had retreated. Perhaps not far from there, in the strong castle to which he had given his name,14 Herod the Idumean, reclining on his couch of purple and gold, was receiving the homage of his courtiers, or was seated at a sumptuous holiday banquet. The true heirs of that throne were reposing on the straw of a stable. Bethlehem, that had received with acclaim Herod and Caesar, both tyrants, or, at least, both usurpers, had closed her doors against the King Who had been foretold to her during forty centuries, and Whose life was of such great promise. True, the Messiah was not a pretender to the kingdoms of this perishable, corrupted world; He sought supremacy over a new, spiritual world, whose perfect realization was already His chief desire.
Meanwhile Mary became a mother. She wrapped the newborn in swaddlingclothes and laid Him in the manger. What a crib for the Son of God! In like manner, later on, we shall say of His cross: What a throne for the King of the Universe!
There are antitheses so violent that the mind of man will not and cannot imagine them. These profound contrasts of power and of weakness, of grandeur and of humility, would be, in the formation of a human plan of religion, not only a misconception, but also, it seems to us, a moral impossibility and even lacking in sense. But Jesus, uniting the two extremes of divine glory and human misery, has made them a reality. He discovers a means of teaching us even in the depth of His manger, and from His obscure birth we derive most beneficial lessons. What a harsh rebuke to our presumptuous ambitions! What advice for us in our follies! Riches, honors, pleasures, He despises them. And will man, in his unlawful desires, deem himself wiser than his God !
At this very moment when Jesus is born, unnoticed by the powers of earth, the heavens are moved to their depths. The Angels sing their chants of glory to God and of hope to poor humanity.
The Evangelist tells us that to certain shepherds encamped in the neighborhood and watching in turn over their flocks,15 one of the Angels suddenly appeared, blinding them with his brilliancy and giving them a great fright. "Fear not," says the divine messenger, "for behold I bring you tidings of great joy that shall be to all the people. For this day is born to you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger." At the same time heavenly voices chant the hymn of reconciliation over the cradle of the Reconciler: "Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace to men of good will!" and the shepherds listen with delight to the joy of the invisible world which was to give the note to the adoration of mankind. In the presence of this work of works, the Incarnation, this wonder accomplished by God in the midst of time, the world must give forth a cry of admiration, of praise, of thanksgiving, that shall rise from heaven to heaven to those sublimest heights where the Eternal sits. The message of peace written in human flesh has just been sent to earth from God, the Father, the Judge so long angry and inexorable. It is for man to receive it with goodwill,16 if he wishes to share in salvation.
When the heavenly manifestations had ceased the shepherds, finding themselves again alone, and impressed by the prodigies they had witnessed, said one to another: "Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath showed to us." Naturally and unhesitatingly these good and simple souls follow the signs that came from heaven. They do not fear lest their simplicity be deceived. In all haste they hurry into Bethlehem.
It is probable that on that night there were not many children newly born in the city of David, and, in any case, none but the Messiah had a manger for His cradle. Some interpreters suppose that these pious shepherds, accustomed to lodge in the caravansary and the stable, already knew the Holy Family, and shared its hopes. However that may be, their joy must have been great when they beheld the fulfillment of what the Angel had announced. In a poor manger, on a little straw, was laid the newborn Child. About Him, transported in an ecstasy of joy, were Mary, Joseph, and perhaps a few friends, lodging like them in the stable of the Khan.17 As they heard the story of the shepherds, they felt their pious admiration increase, and manifested it openly. Mary alone, long since acquainted with the divine plan of the Redemption, seems to have restrained herself in most attentive recollection. She was fixing in her heart the memory of the wonders related by simple and sincere lips.
The most ancient tradition tells us that she did not suffer the pains of childbirth. This belief is supported in the text of the Gospel, since, according to St. Luke, Mary took in her own hands the child she had just given to the world, wrapped him in swaddlingclothes, and laid Him in the manger, as if she alone were worthy of gathering the fruit which she alone, among the daughters of Israel, had been worthy of bearing.
After a few hours of holy conversation, which strengthened the faith of all and exalted all their hopes, the shepherds joyously returned to their flocks. Their grateful hearts gave thanks to the God of Israel, Who, remembering His people, was, at last, about to inaugurate the era of His mercies.
It was winter time, according to the most common tradition, about the month of Tebeth,18 and, judging from that information, which appears to be the most exact, near the close of the year 749 A.U.C., about three months before the death of Herod.19
11 This expression of the Evangelist is used of set purpose. Mary was Joseph's legal spouse; this is why she accompanied him in this journey but as spouse she was respected by her husband as if she had been merely his betrothed.
12 Jer. xli, 17.
13 Not only in the Apocryphal Gospels do we find the tradition that Jesus was born in a grotto, it is also given by St. Justin in the second half of the second century. In his Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 78, he says, "The Child being born then at Bethlehem because Joseph could not find a lodging in this town, they had taken quarters in a cave near by." Origen continues the tradition, declaring that this celebrated grotto is still shown at Bethlehem, Deiknutai to en Bhqleem sphlaion k. t. l. (cf. Cels., l, i, 51). About the year 325 the Empress Helen constructed a church to mark the spot where the Savior of the world was born (See Eusebius, Demonst. vii, 2, and De Vita Constantini, in, 41; Epiphanius, Haeres., xx; Theodoret, In Joel ii, 31). It was near this cave in that land whence, as the Psalmist says, "the truth came forth," that Jerome, the ardent defender of the Church desired to live and die. He brought there with him his illustrious friend St. Paula, and her daughter, Eustochium, and together they deemed themselves happy in selfsanctification and in their work for Jesus Christ, which consisted in translating the Scriptures on the spot where they had been so wonderfully fulfilled (Epist. lviii, ad. Paulin., and passim). Pilgrims still venerate in the Grotto of the Nativity at Bethlehem the memory of these pious personages, though the body of this valiant doctor of the Church was long ago transported with the holy crib, to Rome and placed in the Church of St. Mary Major.
15 About a mile to the east of Bethlehem, at a point where end four low hills quite suitable for guarding the flocks, are the remains of an old tower built on the level rock. At one side there is still a cave in which the lambs take shelter in winter time. The spot is called by the Arabs, SeiarerRhanem, "sheep stable," which reminds us of Migdal Eder, "Tower of the flock," where St. Jerome said the angel appeared to the shepherds. The ruins of a church with its catacombs and of a vast convent give us to believe that, at an early date, this spot was venerated as the traditional scene of the heavenly manifestation.
16 This chant of the Angels, forming a sort of distich, with exactly parallel members, has been diversely translated in the last part. Many maintain that it means: "Peace on earth to men whom God loves, or to men the object of divine goodwill." But the genitive eudokias is certainly here a genitive of quality and indicates something found, not in God, but in man, to which the genitive is attached. Others, with some reason, sacrifice the Alexandrine rendering, and read, like the Pesehito, the T. R., and the Byzantines, the Angels' chant with eudokia instead of eudokias in three separate acclamations: "Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth! Goodwill to men!"
17 The Gospel says: "And all that heard wondered at those things that were told them by the shepherds." This seems to indicate more listeners than merely Mary and Joseph, as the former, at least, does not seem to have taken much part in the enthusiastic demonstration of those present.
18 It belongs to the Church, in deference to the claims of her most ancient traditions, to determine the season of the year in which the Savior was born. The Gospel says He was conceived six months after John the Baptist, and we, therefore, conclude that He was born fifteen months after Zachary beheld the vision in the Temple. It is impossible, however, to fix the date on which he had this vision. Those who place it on the twentythird of September, the feast of the Expiations, since that was the only day on which the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, forget that, according to St. Luke, Zachary was a simple priest, and that he saw the Angel, not in the Holy of Holies, but near the altar of incense, that is, in that part of the Temple called the Hekal, or Holy Place. Others, seeking in the Jewish calendar, and in the order of the priestly courses, the two weeks of the year when the course of Abia performed the sacerdotal functions, have noticed that its first week came about the middle of Casleu (NovemberDecember) and the second in the middle of Sivan (MayJune). From this they conclude that Jesus was born about the beginning of March or of September, according as John was conceived in December or in June. But nothing is less certain than this hypothetical calculation of the sacerdotal weeks. The reasons given in proof of one or the other of these dates, that the flocks spent the night in the open air, or the census, which should not be undertaken except in the pleasant season, are not very strong. At the present day even, the Arabs, after the rains of December, about the middle of the month, leave their dwellings and go down into the plain with their flocks. Barclay, Schwartz, Schubert, and other famous travelers declare that at the end of December the days in Palestine are often the most agreeable of the year. The earth is covered with verdure, and Tobler assures us that they profit by this to take out the flocks from the folds and drive them to the fields. As for the best time in which to take the census, the Roman people were not accustomed to bother about the convenience of their allies or tributary provinces. If the order of Augustus was promulgated in September, while peace reigned in the empire, the enrollment could take place only in winter in those countries as far from Rome as Palestine. Therefore it is useless for these modern and serious writers to seek a date outside the winter solstice as the season in which Jesus Christ was born. Ellicott (Lect. on the Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ) says that he was born in February in the year of Rome 750, Greswell (Dissert. on the Harm., i, 402) on the fifth or sixth of April, Lardner (Works, v, i, 370) prefers the middle of August or November, etc. Among the older writers, Clement of Alexandria (Strom., i, 21) gives the opinion of those who placed the Nativity on the twentyfifth Pachon (May 20) or the twentyfifth Pharmuthi (April 20). But he remarks that the date preferred in the universal tradition of the Alexandrian Church was between the eleventh and the fifteenth Tybi (from the sixth to the tenth of January).
The East and the West have at all times agreed that Jesus was born on one of the twelve sacred nights venerated with special devotion by antiquity (between the twentyfifth of December and the sixth of January). There were, no doubt, mystical reasons why the great light of the Messiah should burst forth upon the world during the epoch when the sun, having reached the sign of Capricorn, rises above the solstitial point and returns again toward springtime to communicate new life to earth. But the fundamental reason is that the first Christian generation, from an early date, had learned how the Saviour was born in a stable on a night in winter. We find in St. Hippolytus in Dan. iv, edit. Bonn, 1891, p. 19, the most ancient authority in favor of December twentyfifth, as we learn from Can. Pasc. an. 222, he placed the Conception in the month of March. These circumstances of poverty and cold had become in tradition a natural commentary of the Gospel which the Church could not forget. The East at first celebrated the feast of the Nativity on the last of the twelve sacred nights. Rome preferred to employ it as a substitute for the pagan feast celebrated on the twentyfourth of December in honor of the birth of the Invincible, Natales Invicti (St. Leo the Great, Sermon 21, 6; St. Augustine, c. Faust., 20, 4). In the fifth century the Greek Church accepted the date adopted in the Roman Church (cf. Discourse of St. John Chrysostom, De Die Natali Christi), and since then the Nativity has been universally celebrated on the twentyfifth of December.
19 It is impossible to fix even the exact year in which Jesus was born. It is certain that He was born before the death of Herod, and consequently before the Passover of the year of Rome 750, and probably after the universal pacification of the world under Augustus, that is to say, at least later than the summer of 746. The edict for the enrollment of the Empire could have been promulgated only when the Temple of Janus had already solemnly been closed. Reliable chronologists have not gone beyond the series of years between 746 and 750 A.U.C. To know the exact year we must find, either in the Gospel or in profane history, information as yet undiscovered.
Thus we do not know whether the census which brought Mary to Bethlehem was taken by Quirinius, as St. Luke seems to say, or by Saturninus, as Tertullian holds: we know still less the year of their government in which these Roman delegates undertook it.
The calculations which bring us from the eleventh Lous (August, 823, of Rome) the date of the ruin of the Temple, when the course of Joiarib was in service back to 746, 747, 748, 749, when the course of Abia was fulfilling the sacerdotal functions in September, are not only very involved, but particularly useless, because they take for granted a very debatable issue. There is nothing to prove that John the Baptist was conceived in September.
The star of the Magi throws no light on the question. We must first know exactly what it was. Even though it were Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction which we do not believe, in the sign of the Pisces, which occurred, according to Ideler, about the year of Rome 747, we should yet have to prove that it coincided perfectly with the birth of Jesus, neither preceding nor following it.
Finally, according to St. Luke, John the Baptist had already begun his preaching in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, at which time he baptized Jesus, who appeared to be about thirty years of age. But, in addition to the fact that St. Luke does not say for how long a time John had been baptizing when Jesus came to him, and that, in addition, the expression "about thirty years" is somewhat vague, it has been hitherto impossible to determine the date of the elevation of Tiberius. It is a question whether his reign began at the death of Augustus or with the act by which he was associated in command. If it began with the death of Augustus, which occurred in August, 767, must we include, in the fifteen years mentioned by St. Luke, the year 767 itself? If with his association in the Empire, at what date must we place this association? According to Suetonius it was in 761; according to Paterculus, in 764.
It is plain, then, that there is not a single conclusive argument for any certain date. In choosing 749 we think we take the most probable, but we cannot blame chronologists who make a different choice.
Return to Contents
Return to home page.