First Christmas Eve
Please allow me to begin this story by sharing that over the many centuries, since the beginning of what we now celebrate as Christmas, our societies have painted a much different picture of the Christmas story. We have gotten sidetracked from the real story. Now a simple manger scene might be tucked away on a shelf or table top somewhere in the house symbolically placed without much fanfare or notice. It has become just another ornament or decoration in the house already filled with lights, candles, bows, and other Christmas adornments. There is far more focus upon the gaily wrapped gifts under the tree as we wonder, “What is under the tree for me?” There is more attention to the candy, cookies and cakes being prepared for the Christmas family gathering than that manger scene that depicts the real purpose of Christmas.
Is it wrong to think about all the other wonderful treats and gifts and ornamentation that now come with Christmas? Is it wrong to sing Jingle Bells and Grandma Got Run Over By the Reindeer on Christmas Eve? Is it wrong to talk about Santa Claus, the North Pole, and Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer? Is it wrong to watch any of the myriad of Christmas stories that Hollywood has created and we like to watch each Christmas season? No, all are a by-product in some way and has fashioned our response to what Christmas has become to our society. The way we celebrate has been influenced by our heritage and family traditions as our way to interpret the “Spirit of Christmas” – sharing that interpretation to our children and grandchildren, so they may pass the heritage on as they grow up and raise their family too.
However, if we do not stop and pull aside all the trimmings, decorations, commercialized aspects of Christmas we truly have missed the true inspiration behind the meaning and purpose of Christmas. If we fall prey to all the above and not reflect upon the real reason for the season we might as well follow the rest of the world and stop calling it CHRISTmas, as many in the world would prefer we do. And why is that so? Is it because if they join us in truly celebrating Christmas (the CHRIST MASS, as it originally was called) they will be hearing the true meaning and origin of why we celebrate Christmas: The Birth of Jesus, God’s Son, given to the world as His love gift, so we may know God’s love through knowing and accepting Jesus as the Truth, the Way, and the Life who reveals God to our hearts. With all the recent events in our world, there has been no greater need for our world to grasp a hold upon than the real meaning of Christmas, the true story of that first Christmas Eve that occurred in history (yes, it is a real event of real people recorded so it can be shared from generation to generation to anchor our faith in God’s love for us).
The Bible records that the Apostle Paul saw the Christ child event as significant because it reflected God’s deliberate act to demonstrate His love for us by introducing Himself through Jesus, who was born into this world just as we too are born into this world. In writing to the early churches, some 50 years after the birth, Paul wrote the WHAT and WHY of that first Christmas Eve.
WHAT: But when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son, born among us of a woman, born under the conditions of the law so that he might redeem those of us who have been kidnapped by the law. Galatians 4:4-5 The Message
The timing of Jesus’ birth was not arbitrary. It was established by key events and came directed by the providential hand of God for His good purposes. The events and settings were promised and fulfilled so that the people of God would recognize the signs of His birth when it happened.
WHY: Thus we have been set free to experience our rightful heritage. You can tell for sure that you are now fully adopted as his own children because God sent the Spirit of his Son into our lives crying out, “Papa! Father!” Doesn’t that privilege of intimate conversation with God make it plain that you are not a slave, but a child? And if you are a child, you’re also an heir, with complete access to the inheritance. Galatians 4:6-7 The Message
The why is much more important! Until this point in history the people of God had lost contact with the personal God who led His people from Egypt and delivered them to the Promised Land. Like many of us today, they had taken God’s goodness and love for granted and had been alienated from God for over 500 years, in fact many had been sent into exile to foreign lands. Now, God’s people, scattered all over the world, were under Roman rule without a real “King” to free them from the oppression they were under, and they clung to the promise that God would send a Messiah, or Savior to free them, so they would once again enjoy the direct relationship and inheritance of being God’s children again. God promised it and each day they prayed and hoped that “today would be that day” – and then it happened. God answered their prayers! Here is the story behind that first Christmas Eve:
About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiance, who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel. Luke 2:1-7 The Message
This brief passage and a couple of equally short passages in the Gospel accounts of the Bible reveal the story and we read them at church and they are repeated in the songs of Christmas that we sing in church services every year, such as Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Joy to the World, etc. And there are some churches that still do manger recreations, but how do you personally respond to the story? Is it real to you as you share it to your children or grandchildren?
This is how Hershel Hobbs wrote about it in his account recorded in the Illustrated Life of Jesus:
In faraway Rome Augustus Caesar ruled his vast empire with an iron hand. True to Roman fashion he was primarily concerned that his subjects should keep the peace and pay their taxes. In 8 B.C. he had inaugurated a periodical census every fourteen years in order to enroll his people for taxation. According to Tacitus (Roman Historian) even the regna, the independent kingdoms under the Roman Empire, were included in this census.
Probably two years later this census was carried out in Palestine. Herod, the vassal king, would not think of disobeying Augustus. Yet, knowing the Jew’s aversion to paying taxes to Rome, he delayed it as long as he dared. Even then he sought to placate the Jews by adhering to their customs in dealing with them along tribal lines. So when the order for enrollment was finally given, it called for every Jew to be enrolled at the place where the tribal register was kept.
Thus Joseph and Mary journeyed from Nazareth to Bethlehem, for they were descendants of David and members of the tribe of Judah. Though they were peasants (poor, everyday common folks), royal blood flowed in their veins. By this time Mary was great with child (in her final days of pregnancy) and this journey of approximately 100 miles worked a great hardship on her. Nevertheless Caesar’s decree must be obeyed.
However, she and Joseph moved under a greater word (inspiration) than that of the Roman emperor, for God had said that His Son, the Messiah, should be born in Bethlehem. Augustus knew nothing of this prophecy and cared less. But unknowingly he was an instrument in God’s hands, as his decree like an invisible cord drew the virgin mother toward her destiny.
After several days of travel, late in the afternoon these weary travelers climbed the last rocky, steep ascent leading into Bethlehem. The streets were crowded with hundreds of other men and women bent on the same mission. Clouds of dust boiled up from the stirring of the hundreds of feet of men and animals. A bedlam of noise characteristic of such a scene filled the ears of the weary couple from Nazareth as laboriously they made their way to the village inn. But it was already filled to overflowing.
So because there was no lodging to be had, Joseph bedded his wife down in the area provided for the animals. Here Mary “gave birth to her firstborn Son, and she wrapped Him snugly in cloth and laid Him in a manger (animal feed trough)” Luke 2:7.
Thus was the Son of God born – not in a king’s palace or in a home of the wealthy or mighty, but to a peasant mother whose delivery room was a stable. No physician stood by to assist. Only the gnarled hands of a village carpenter came to her aid, but they were hands made tender by a conquering love and a devotion to God. As the newborn babe slept through the night, He was under the watchful eyes of His mother and Joseph, but most of all He was secure under the never-failing gaze of His Heavenly Father.
The next morning Bethlehem roused from her sleep. It was business as usual as the bazaars rang with the noise of commerce. The enrollment was finished, and the crowds moved out to return to their homes. Caesar’s bidding had been done, and the village of David returned to normal. Only a few simple folks knew that on that night in the little village there had transpired the greatest event in the history of the world.
…Jesus’ birth was largely unnoticed by the world. Outside of the Bible no ancient historian took note of the event. They were so bent on the recording the affairs of men and nations that they failed to recognize God’s history within history, whereby in the person of His Son He entered into the arena of time to answer the universal cry of men’s hearts. But it did not occur without recognition by those whose hearts were prepared to receive it.
Heaven itself rejoiced over the glorious event. For the angelic hosts burst asunder the barrier of invisibility to proclaim the Savior’s birth and to sing the Christian anthem dedicated to His praise. For their audience they had a handful of lowly shepherds, the simple folk who counted for little in the tides of history which ever beat upon the shores of time. But their hearts were firmly fixed in God’s promises upon which they meditated in the quiet hours of the night. In Bethlehem’s fields where Ruth had gleaned in the fields of Boaz, later to become his bride and the Moabite ancestress of the Savior; where David had tended his sheep, all the while contemplating on God’s glory and on Him who was to be born; there the shepherds first heard the glad tidings that unto them had been born a Savior, Christ the Lord.
The shepherds hastened to Bethlehem to find it as the angels had said. They found Mary and Joseph and the Babe lying in a manger. God in a cradle! Upon hearing from the shepherds about the heavenly declaration, Mary placed the event alongside the message of Gabriel, pondering them in her heart. And she knew that God had fulfilled His promise. The shepherds returned to their work, carrying back into their mundane sphere the memory of an experience which would forever cast an aura of glory about them and about all others who in humble trust some to Him who fills the universe with His presence, yet who for a little while was contained in a baby’s impromptu cradle – a manger!
How about you and your family as you share and reflect this story about the first Christmas Eve? Has that manger scene in your home now risen in its meaning among all the other Christmas decorations and symbols of today’s Christmas season?
Rather than read the cute but created story about “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to your children, maybe this year you will read them the real, God-inspired true story about “The Night that Brought Christmas into the World!”
God bless, and Merry Christmas!