The Child Born at Bethlehem
About six miles to the south of Jerusalem is the village of Bethlehem, lying along the slope and on the top of a gray hill, from the steep eastern end of which one looks over a broad plain, toward a range of high hills beyond. At any time, as one drew near the place, coming from Jerusalem, he would pass by rounded hills, and now and then cross little ravines with brooks, sometimes full of water, sometimes only beds of stone; and, if it were spring-time, he would see the hills and valleys covered with their grass, and sprinkled abundantly with a great variety of wild flowers, daisies, poppies, the Star of Bethlehem, tulips and anemones—a broad sheet of color, of scarlet, white and green. Perhaps, very long ago, there were trees also where now there are none; and on those hills, gray with the stone that peeped out through the grass, stood the mighty cedars of Lebanon, stretching out their sweeping branches, and oaks, sturdy and rich with dark foliage, green the year round. At any rate, then, as now, we may believe that there were vineyards upon the sunny slopes, and we know that the wind blew over corn-fields covering the plains that lay between the ranges of hills.
It is of the time long since that we are thinking, when there were no massive buildings on Bethlehem hill, such as are to be seen in the town as it now appears. Instead, there were low houses, many of mud and sunburnt brick, some so poor, doubtless, that the cattle were stalled, if not in the same room with the people of the house, yet so near that they could be heard through the partition, stamping, and crunching their food. There was an inn there, also; but we must not think of it as like our modern public-houses, with a landlord and servants, where one could have what he needed by paying for it. Rather, it was a collection of buildings for the convenience and accommodation of travelers, who brought with them whatever they required of food, and the means of preparing it, finding there only shelter and the roughest conveniences. The larger inns of this sort were built in the form of a great courtyard surrounded by arcades, in which people stayed, and kept their goods, if they were merchants.
The inn at Bethlehem was not probably one of these great caravanserais,—as they are called now in the East, because caravans stop at them; and it is even possible that the stables about the inn were simply caves scooped out of the soft chalk rock, for the country there has an abundance of these caves used for this very purpose.
From the hill on which Bethlehem stands, one can see travelers approaching, and at that time, long ago, no doubt the people who lived there saw companies of travelers, on foot or mounted, coming up to the village. For it was a busy time in Judea. The Emperor at Rome, the capital of the world, had ordered a tax to be laid upon his subjects, and first it had to be known just who were liable to be taxed. Nowadays, and in our country, people have their names taken down at the door of their own houses, and pay their tax in the town where they live. But then, in Judea, it was different. If a man had always lived in one place, and his parents before him, well and good: there his name was taken down, and there he was taxed. But if he was of a family that had left another place, he went back to the old home, and there his name was registered. There were many, it may be, who at this time were visiting Bethlehem for this purpose.
At least, we know of two amongst these travelers; devout and humble people they were; Joseph, a carpenter, living in Nazareth, a village of Galilee, sixty miles or more to the northward, and Mary, his wife. Together they were coming to Bethlehem, for while Nazareth was now their home, they were sprung from a family that once lived in Bethlehem, and though they were now poor and lowly, that family was the royal family, and King David, the greatest king that ever sat on the Jewish throne, was their ancestor. Perhaps, as they climbed the hill, they thought of Ruth, who had gleaned in the corn-fields just where they were passing, and no doubt they thought of Ruth's great-grandson, King David, who was born here, and here kept his father's sheep,—such sheep as even now they could see on the hillsides, watched by the watching shepherds.
They came, like the rest, to the caravanserai, but found it already filled with travelers. They could not have room with other men and women, and yet there was shelter to be had, for the place where the horses and beasts of burden stood was not all taken up. It may be that many of those now occupying the inn had come on Joseph's errand, and, not being merchants, had come unattended by the beasts that bore the goods of merchants, who were there occupying the inn; and what were they there for? We can only guess. All is forgotten of that gathering; men remember only the two travelers from Nazareth who could find no room in the inn, and made their resting-place by a manger.
For there, away from the crowd, was born to Mary a child, whom she wrapped in swaddling-clothes and laid in the manger. She was away from home; she was not even in a friend's house, nor yet in the inn; the Lord God had made ready a crib for the babe in the feeding-place of cattle. What gathering of friends could there be to rejoice over a child born in this solitary place?
Yet there were some, friends of the child and of the child's mother, who welcomed its birth with great rejoicing. It may be that when Mary was laying Him upon His first hard earthly resting-place, there was, not far off, such a sight as never before was seen on earth. On the hilly slopes about Bethlehem were flocks of sheep that, day and night, cropped the grass, watched by shepherds, just as, so long before, young David, in the same place, had watched his father's sheep. These shepherds were devout men, who sang, we may easily believe, the songs which the shepherd David had taught them; and now, in the night-time, on the quiet slopes, as they kept guard over their flocks, out of the darkness appeared a heavenly visitor: whence he came they knew not, but round about him was a brightness which they knew could be no other than the brightness of His presence which God cast about His messengers. Great fear fell upon them—for who of mortals could stand before the heavenly beings? But the angel, quick to see their fear, spoke in words which were the words of men and fell in peaceful accents:—
"Fear not!" said he, "for see, I bring you glad tidings of a great joy that shall be to all the people. For there has been born to you, this very day, a Saviour, who is the Holy Lord, born in the city of David; and this shall be its sign to you: ye shall find a child wrapped in swaddling-clothes lying in a manger."
And now, suddenly, before they could speak to the heavenly messenger, they saw, not him alone, but the place full of the like heavenly beings. A multitude was there; they came not as if from some distant place, but as angels that ever stood round these shepherds. The eyes of the men were opened, and they saw, besides the grassy slopes and feeding sheep, and distant Bethlehem, and the stars above, a host of angels. Their ears were opened, and besides the moving sheep and rustling boughs, they heard from this great army of heavenly beings a song, rising to God and falling like a blessing upon the sleeping world:—
In the lowly manger, a little child; on the hillside pasture, a heavenly host singing His praises! Then it was once more quiet, and the darkness was about the shepherds. They looked at one another and said,—"Let us go, indeed, to Bethlehem, to see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord hath made us know."
So, in all haste, with the sound of that hymn of glory in their ears, they left the pasture and sought the town. They went to the inn, but they looked not there for the child; where the mangers were, there they sought Him, and found Him lying, and by Him Joseph and Mary. There were others by the new-born child, some who had doubtless come out from the inn at hearing of the birth. "Whence are these shepherds?" they might have said to themselves, "and what has brought them to this birthplace?"
To all by the manger, the shepherds, their minds full of the strange sight they had witnessed, recount the marvel. They tell how one appeared with such brightness about him as in old times they had heard gave witness that the Lord God would speak to His people; how their fear at his presence was quieted by his strange and joyful words; and how, when he had said, "Ye shall find a child wrapped in swaddling-clothes, lying in a manger," they suddenly were aware of a host of angels round about them sounding praise, to which God also listened.
Those to whom they told these things were amazed indeed at the strangeness. What did the marvel mean, they wondered. They could know no more than the shepherds had told them, and as for these men, they went away to their flocks again, praising God, for now they too, had seen the child, and it was all true, and with their human voice they caught up the song of rejoicing which had fallen from angelic lips.
There was one who heard it all, and we may think did not say much or ask much, but laid it away in her heart. It was Mary, and she had, in the treasure-house where she put away this wonder, other thoughts and recollections in company with it. There, in her inmost heart, she kept the remembrance of a heavenly visitor who had appeared to her when she was alone, and had quieted her fear by words that told her of this coming birth, and filled her soul with the thought that He whom she should bear was to have the long-deserted throne and a kingdom without end. She remembered how, when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, she was greeted with a psalm of rejoicing that sprang to the lips of that holy woman, and from her own heart had come a psalm of response.
And now the child was born—born in the place of David, yet born to be laid in a manger. A name had been given it by the angel, and she called the child Jesus; for Jesus means Saviour, and "He shall," said the angel, "save His people from their sins."