I first posted this piece to my old LiveJournal blog last December 18. I thought I'd share it with you.
Joseph and Mary had walked a long way from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. No matter what time of year it really was, we know that it was a dark night and the city was filled with strangers. Aliens. The inns were full and the innkeepers were turning away latecomers. Each year, when we hear this story, we imagine that Joseph and Mary were the only couple seeking shelter that night. We picture them walking door to door along lonely streets, searching for one place where they could stop for the night. “Silent Night,” we call it. But, I wonder…was it really silent? Were the streets really empty of all but this one couple?
I find myself wondering as I wander through this Christmastide about all those others who must have been turned away. Joseph and Mary weren’t turned away because they had no money. According to tradition, Joseph was a skilled tradesman; humble he may have been, but it is unlikely that he was poor. No…scripture is clear that they were turned away because “there was no room” (Luke 2:7). There was no room because “All the world” was called to the homes of their ancestors to be counted. Generations of children of Bethlehem were returning because of the decree for a census. Surely, there were others who were left without a place to stay that night. Surely, Joseph and Mary walked by others camped along the roads – men, women, entire families gathered around fires or huddled together in bedrolls to keep warm on a cold desert night. Among them, it is certain that there were those who were poor. Certainly, among those who gathered in Bethlehem that night, there must have many who were discontent with having to be there; angry for the inconvenience thrust upon them by a Roman Emperor and carried out by a Roman Governor.
When Mary met with Elizabeth a few months before, she echoed the words of Hannah with her song of freedom and hope for the oppressed. “He has put down the mighty from their thrones;” she sang, “and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:52). Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, prophesied that his child, John, would be a prophet, going before the Lord who would “give light to those who sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:70). These are words of hope for a people who labored under the oppressive rule of an Empire. These words reveal the need of the Hebrew people for relief from the burden of supporting the rich at the expense of the poor.
They worked hard for their income, only to pay high taxes to support the opulent lives of the Roman rich, sometimes unable to provide for those where were ill and handicapped. Those who could not work had no choice but to sit on street corners and byways, begging for a few coins in order to feed themselves or their families. How different were these people from those who today cannot afford health care for themselves or their loved ones? How different from those who are unable to find work and find little to help them through the dark times?
When Joseph and Mary finally found shelter, it may have been in a barn among the animals; a place where there would be shelter from the weather and perhaps a little privacy for Mary to give birth to her baby. We really don’t know if they were sent there by a kind innkeeper or if they simply slipped into the warmest place they could find. They may have simply stayed in a crowded home among relatives, where there was not a bed left to lay a baby down to sleep. Scripture does not provide these details – everything we think we know comes from years of oral tradition and more recent depictions in books and film. We don’t know if Mary, Joseph and Jesus were the only people who laid their heads in the straw during their stay in Bethlehem, or if there were others who spent their nights throughout the time of the census sleeping someplace nearby. Perhaps others shared the same space where the beautiful new baby slept in a food trough or perhaps they rolled out blankets on a hillside. Whichever it was, whoever was not able to find a room to stay in camped out for the duration of the census. How long must it have taken for the Romans to count their subjects and calculate how much money could be made? How long must it have taken for the oppressor to count the oppressed so they might assess what threat there might be during a revolt?
Scripture tells us that Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem for purification according to the Law of Moses, which is about 40 days after the birth of the child. Did they return to Nazareth first? It seems unlikely to me. Jerusalem was only about six miles from Bethlehem – but 65 from Nazareth. Their trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem had been an 80 mile trek, and had taken anywhere from four days to a week. It’s unlikely they went home to Nazareth before heading the Jerusalem. It seems more likely that they would have stayed in Bethlehem awhile, either because of the time it would take to respond to the Emperor’s decree or to allow Mary to recuperate – or both.
No matter where Mary and Joseph stayed – no matter how long they stayed – I am certain that there was conversation around the reason they were in Bethlehem in the first place. Was Joseph discontented that he had to bring his very pregnant bride on such a long and arduous trip along dangerous roads just so the Romans would know how many Jews they had under their thumbs? Was Mary upset that though she carried the Light of Hope within, the poor, the ill and the suffering were forced to take a costly and likely unhealthy trip?
The Hebrew people outnumbered the Romans, yet the Romans and their appointed cronies most certainly held the bulk of the wealth and power. There must have been rumblings among the people gathered in camps along the roads of Bethlehem and in the homes where generations gathered during this time. Such rumblings, when heard of by the Romans and their supporters, must have stricken a little fear in their hearts. The scriptural tale of the Wise Men’s visit to Herod and Herod’s subsequent decree to kill all male children born at the time of Jesus’ birth illustrates this fear. Did the Jewish leaders who conspired with Rome hear of the gathering of Shepherds and the news of Angels? Did they fear the people more because their voices were being heard by the likes of Wise Men from afar? Did they hear scraps of news out of context and misinformation contrived to keep them on the side of the Empire and to look upon their own people with derision?
It wasn’t over with Jesus’ birth; the camps at Bethlehem broke up after the end of the census, but the poor and the hungry still gathered at street corners, begging. We know that many anti-Roman leaders rose out of the crowds to fight for freedom. We know how Elizabeth’s son John grew up and began to gather together groups of followers as he awaited the leadership of his cousin, Jesus; and we know how the story of the beautiful baby boy in the manger’s life among the people ends. He became a rabble rouser and a freedom fighter. He dared to model radical love for his people. He performed miracles; he served the poor, he healed the sick, he taught women, men and youth alike, he loved the children and he spent time alone with God. He spoke out against tyranny and oppression of all kinds, and he turned over the moneychanger’s table at the temple. He died for the truth and in his living and in his death, he provided the highest example of living an honest life that has ever been.
When Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, the city was under the control of the occupying Roman army. The Hebrew people were forced to gather in the streets to meet the demands of an Empire. Jesus was born among the displaced people of Israel; he grew up understanding that whatever peace they had in their lives was at the expense of the people and under the control of the Roman leadership. He grew up to stand up for those who were bent under the burden of governmental control and the demands of the rich. About a week before he died, Jesus led his disciples into Jerusalem. He was accompanied by his followers – not only the twelve apostles, but a much larger group of those who heard what he had to say, who had seen his miracles and had been shown that it is possible to love your neighbor, including the tax collector and the Samaritan. The group that Jesus led into Jerusalem Occupied that city from the day they entered until after his death. They dispersed into smaller groups; they feared for their lives and some even denied knowing him. But on the day they entered, the very people who had once been forced to Occupy Bethlehem chose to Occupy Jerusalem.
This Christmastide, I choose to Occupy Bethlehem. I choose to recognize a Bethlehem that was not so silent, but that was filled with the cacophony of people who gathered against their will, believing that one day they would be set free of tyranny and oppression. I choose to hear the laughter of those who found peace in the hope they had for the future. And for a moment, I choose to hear the “Silent Night” of Bethlehem. I choose to hear that eternal silence that comes just after a new baby is born, when everyone holds their breath…
…and the sigh of relief and the awakened hope when they hear the joyous sound of the baby’s cry…