Somewhere around 4 BC, Octavius (Caesar Augustus, Rome) wanted to know how many people there were within the empire. It was a simple request, though Rome had to hire and send out thousands of counters, much like Washington does these days. I suspect it went well enough in most places. Knock on the door. Yes, three Latins, one of Etruscan lineage, two Jews and two Greeks. Yes, thank you. Knock on the next door.
In some places, though, the local authorities added further complications. You can be sure Rome did not order people to move in order to be counted according to their tribe and house. That was a headache in the massive movement of people that Rome did not need. You can also be sure it was not the people who came up with this idea. Most Jews in that day probably had no idea what lineage they were. Israel had been crushed and then Judah was escorted into exile centuries ago. Many of the remains intermarried and became Samaritans. Yes, Jews also filled the countryside, but they probably did not know if they were Gadites or Asherites – or “convertites” from five or six generations ago.
Many, though, knew that Judah (and Benjamin) were the only valid remaining tribes, and a massive movement of people began. Why was Bethlehem so filled to overflowing? Was David that prolific? No, I rather think it was the Woodstock syndrome. There were a half million people at Woodstock, but I would guess – and your guess might be different – that some ten million people might presently claim that they were there. People who were uncertain to begin with about their exact heritage might well claim the house of David. Can’t aspire any higher than that! The result, of course, was there was no room at the inn.
So Joseph arrived in town, knowing his heritage (if we understand the genealogies given elsewhere), and Mary came with him. They were still just engaged. We have no idea what her heritage might have been, but that did not matter. Even though they were not yet formally married, her heritage did not count. She was counted as belonging in that sense to his line. (Curious that these days Jewish credentials are established in the opposite way, through the mother, not the father).
Of course, they were not married yet. I suppose there was no shame in marrying a single mom. It might have looked bad if Joseph married a woman pregnant with another man’s child…
Then it says, “While they were there.” We think, arrived in town in the evening, no room at the inn, go to the manger, and in the wee hours give birth. “While they were there” might have been any time over six or eight months. It could have easily been anytime over six or eight days. No room at the inn? This census was not a speedy event like we think of them. And the indication (in case you never noticed) is that Joseph was not exactly a stable, well-to-do man. In fact, my eyes see one very much like my Grandad in Arkansas.
Grandad was a migrant, tenant farmer who never lived in the same place more than a couple of years. Joseph stayed in Bethlehem and plied his trade there for at least two years. Scholars tell us it was two years before the wise men showed up and Herod began the slaughter of the innocents (all children under two). I think for Joseph it was have skills (maybe a few tools) will travel. They went to Egypt, where he found work for a time. They moved to Nazareth, and may have lived between Nazareth and Capernaum (where the work was) for a while.
I am not saying Joseph did not eventually open his own little shop, but… Jesus was certainly familiar with Capernaum, since he made his home there. I am saying, no room at the inn? For a price there might have been room, but Joseph obviously did not have the money.
Now, shepherds and angels and giving glory to God is all good stuff. We hear about this stuff every year. But I think it would not hurt to really look at the family here.
Mary (I said last time) was typical, average, normal, no great beauty, no stand out in the crowd, no great attraction. She was married off to a simple carpenter, an older man, and maybe a kind of migrant worker who had a few tools and went where the work was. We get the impression that Jesus never seriously suffered hunger and want, but he might have. We don’t know. We imagine his parents tried their very best, but they were poor. Poverty and need are things Jesus certainly knew. They are things he could relate to.
Here, we see the Son of David (him and a million other claims), the Son of Man (which means nothing apart from the other side of the coin): the Son of God. Yet the Son of God had no special privileges, no advantages, no silver spoon. Joseph was dead and gone by the time Jesus began his ministry. Mary was a poor widow.
What is remarkable is despite all of the disadvantages and hardships, God’s grace shines bright through it all. Hardship came from the very first day, not just when he got to the cross. I mean, he was born in the barn because that was the only room there was for the poor migrant laborer and his bride-to-be. Jesus never lost touch with the common, ordinary people among whom he was raised, yet he rose above it all and eventually he rose on the third day. This ascension in life is one that ought to give us all hope. No matter the hardship we face, God’s grace can still shine brighter. We can see this in Jesus, Son of David, Son of Man, Son of God.
At Christmas time, let us take a moment to consider our own lives. No matter the trouble and hardship, God’s grace can shine brighter, if we have the eyes to see. The shepherds saw. Do we?