We were in Jerusalem, and in Mark’s house, a few days before the great feast of Pentecost, when Mary came up with her memories of Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born….
Mary: ….I was about to give birth when the Romans called for a census in the whole country… Those were difficult days, my God! The announcement of that law, which all of us Israelites had to comply with by hook or by crook, reached Nazareth when the weather was getting cold….
Female Neighbor: How unfortunate!… If the Maccabees brothers could see what’s happening…! They would cut off the heads of these bandits!
Old Man: What do these Romans want…? They think they’re our masters!
Male Neighbor: You bet they are, compadre!… Or were you born yesterday? For forty years, they’ve held us by the neck!… Remember Egypt with Moses!… It’s the same thing!…
Another Neighbor: And now, the census! They want to have a head count of all, one by one, like sheep, so they can bleed us dry of our money!
Mary: The census law ordered each head of the family to transfer to the birthplace of their ancestors as soon as possible in order to be registered there…. My countrymen from Israel came from different tribes, so every family packed up their things, loaded their mules and set for the road reluctantly…. Some journeyed near, but others had to undertake a long trip…. Those were the days when Galilee was filled with caravans cursing the Romans while crossing the country… Since Joseph belonged to the tribe of Judah, of the family of David, we had to take a long trip to the south…
Joseph: We’re going to Bethlehem, Mary, to the other end of the country, no less!… This is disastrous!… what with your big belly and the roads, too muddy on account of the rains…. And all this happening at the same time!
Mary: Why don’t we stay here, Joseph? Let’s not go anywhere!
Joseph: Okay, that’s what we shall do…!
Mary: They can’t drive us away anytime it pleases them, my goodness!…. So what do we do now, Joseph?
Joseph: Pfff… Then, you better get the two mules ready, Mary. If we don’t register, we’re in for more trouble later… You know how they control everything….
Mary: But that’s quite a long trip, Joseph… The baby is almost due…
Joseph: Would you rather have us imprisoned and the child born in jail?…
Mary: So off we went to Bethlehem. I was mounted on a half dead mule…. The truth is, I didn’t feel uneasy at all, neither did the pregnancy weary me. I was scared at the thought that I would be far from my mother in a strange place at my due time… Up in Nain, those of us heading for the south banded together in one big caravan which was on its way to the same… There were several women in my condition. Although the trip was terrible for many, I was in very high spirits then…
Man: Where are you heading for, countrymen…?
Joseph: Bethlehem, can you imagine that?… And you?
Man: To a much nearer place, Siloam… I see that your wife is due… like my wife…!
Joseph: That’s right… Well, as long as the baby is not born in the middle of the road…
Mary: For God’s sake, Joseph, don’t say that…!
Man: Tell me, do you want a boy or a girl?
Joseph: All I want is for the baby to become a courageous person, that’s all!… If it’s a girl, she must be like Deborah, the woman fighter who’s got courage more than a man…. If it’s a boy, he must be something like Moses….
Man: Oh let it be what it ought to be, blazes!
Joseph: I hope they’re not twins, huh, Mary?… With that big bulge of yours…. No way!… Life is already too difficult to feed two mouths all at the same time.
Mary: After three days on the road we arrived in Bethlehem, which they call “the house of bread”…
Old Man: Attention, folks, Bethlehem is in sight!
Man: Take off your sandals, countrymen, this is holy land! This is where the great David came from!
Woman: And so did his great grandmother. If Ruth hadn’t fallen for Boaz, things would have been different! So, let’s move on and look for a place!
Mary: When we entered Bethlehem, the place was teeming with people…. and it was beginning to rain…
Mary: Where are we going to stay, Joseph?… Many people have come for the census… Apparently, David had sired more grandchildren than rabbits….
Joseph: Don’t worry, Mary… I was told that the Galileans have found a place over there, in an open field… The inns here are only for the rich… These people here are known for their exorbitant fees….
Mary: We tried to cross the town on the narrow, winding and swampy roads…. Alongside, the white houses with round roofs crowded together….
The camels and the animals of the caravans were shivering, their rain-drenched hair tangled up…. I leaned on Joseph to avoid falling. Joseph supported himself on his long cane, as he pulled the rope of our mule…. The stubborn beast moved by fits and starts….
Joseph: Are you okay, Mary…?
Mary: I’m tired… Look… I’ve got a feeling it’s coming…. This baby is moving a lot… It seems in a hurry to come out…
Joseph: Maybe it’ll turn out to be a dancer, like King David…. At least it should get something from him if the baby’s to be born here…!
Mary: The rain didn’t last long. Then a fresh wind swept the clouds away. And at night the sky remained clear, and full of stars. We Galileans had our encampment in the open air, in a plain sown with palm trees, from where the stars of Bethlehem could be seen…
A Man: If you want some more olives, here they are! Or you can have some dates if you like!… Tonight, anything goes, folks!
A Old Man: Including your lice, man!
Mary: I remember we built a big bonfire and we gathered around it to take something. Some men began to sing old songs of the land which they learned from their grandfathers… The children who had come in the caravan played by the fire…. We were so happy… We huddled together so as not to feel the cold, as we rested after the long trip…
A Man: Imagine making us cross the entire country just to have our names listed in one of the papers. Shame on you, Romans!… You’ll pay for all this when the Messiah comes… He’ll make you eat all those papers and all those laws, and that’ll be the end for Augustus Caesar.
Another Man: That’ll be a day of great rejoicing, yesiree, like a day of great harvest…! A day of feasting!
Another Man: That’ll be the day, old woman! They say that the prophets have announced great things to come…. Do you know what my grandfather used to say? That on this day, the wolf and the lamb shall be friendly neighbors, and the cow and the bear shall be sleeping together with their young…. Can you imagine this?… It’ll be a life of peace and tranquility…!!
Old Man: Well, well, go ahead young men, with your nice talk; the night is beautiful and so are your words… But, you know what I think? Either God has gone asleep or the Messiah has lost his way… Look how my teeth have gone yellow, and yet, I haven’t seen anything…
A Woman: C’mon, old man, don’t despair… God has His own time… He keeps His word.
Mary: Oh, Joseph, oh, oh, it’s coming, Joseph, it’s coming…!
Joseph: What’s wrong, Mary, oh God…?
Another Woman: What do you mean, what’s wrong with her? Man, the baby wants to get his head out!
Mary: I don’t remember how it happened… Joseph and the other men had to carry me….
A Man: Where do we put her, Simon?
Simon: In that cave over there…!
A Man: But it’s full of animals…!
Simon: We’ll get them out, man!… Go and scare them out!
Joseph: Hey, ma’am Noemi, come with us… You’re a midwife, aren’t you?
Noemi: No, we’ll all have a hand in this!… We all go!
The whole encampment was astir…. Beside the clearing where we were, by the hillside there were some caves where the shepherds kept their sheep…. The women ran toward us… Everybody wanted to help…. The men didn’t fell short of our expectations…. My God, what a hassle!
Man: Hohoo…. Out!… Out you go!… C’mon, little lambs… out to the open air… This Galilean needs shelter!… Out you go!…
Mary: They took me to one of the caves and lay me on a pile of dry straw…
Old Woman: Well, young woman, this is your first, so it’ll be a little difficult… but everything will turn out fine.
A Woman: All the men, stay out!… This is only for women!
An Old Man: Hell, something stinks here!
A Woman: So stay out! You’re not needed here! Hey, you better have that wick lighted, keep it away from the straw. We don’t want any bonfire here…. Hey, I told the men to stay out!
A Man: I thought…. Hip… we said tonight was for everyone…. So, this baby is also ours, yesiree! Hip…!
An Old Woman: Oh, yeah?… okay, deliver the baby yourself, rascal!… Out, out!…
Joseph: Let me stay…! I’m the father, damn!
Woman: Well, if you are, do something useful…. Bring in some hot water in a jug and some clean cloths…!
Mary: The night entered its first watch… I was there, lying on the straw, bathing in sweat, in my tremendous struggle in childbirth, clasping the hand of one of those women helping me…
Woman: C’mon, Mary, everything will be okay… Help him get into this world… that’s it, take a deep breath… fine, fine…
Mary: Oh…! Oh…! Ohh….
Old Woman: My, my!… Yesterday it was Rebekah, and now it’s Mary… Two childbirths in a row!… At the rate they’re going, we Galileans will be filling up the whole country!
Mary: Those were long hours for me!… The pain kept on coming back like the waves of the Great Sea… The cave, still half-dark, was filled with women…. Outside, the men talked and sang, in anticipation of the coming child…. Everybody stayed awake that night…
Woman: Is everything okay…?
Old Woman: Of course…. I guess this is a big child…
Old Woman: Give one last push, Mary, c’mon….
Old Woman: Put a wet cloth on her head, Annette, to soothe her…
Woman: Hey, it’s coming!… Noemi… that’s it…
Mary: Ohh…. Oh… Oh…!
Woman: Push some more, Mary… the head is almost there!
Another Woman: It’s here!… Praise the Lord!
Old Woman: It’s a boy! You’ve got a son!
Woman: Run, Chichi and tell the father!
Mary: Joseph came running…
Mary: Isn’t he cute, Joseph…?
Joseph: He’s a darling… and he looks like me! Heck! At least I must say something, no?… Oh, Mary, I love you…
Old Woman: Enough of the cuddling, young man. Your wife needs to rest!
Woman: Oh, these men…! Just because they don’t experience such labor!
Mary: The women washed the baby, wrapped him in a clean cloth and lay him beside me, on the straw… They brought a little lamp near so I could take a good look at him….
Woman: Watch out, young woman, the smoke is bad for him!
Old Woman: Can you feed him now, my dear?
Mary: Yes, I guess so…
Old Woman: Go ahead, breastfeed him now…. Poor little thing…. He must be hungry…
Woman: Look, my dear, this is how you do it… like this….
Old Woman: Everyone may go inside now to see the Nazarene’s little boy!!
Man: Hey, come over here and see God’s perfect little boy!!
He was born amid his people, those people who for thousands of years, had waited for him, in clamor for justice… He was welcomed to this world by the calloused and suffering hands of the women of Galilee… He was born in the middle of the night, and in silence. The stars shone to announce the joyful news that he was in the middle of the open air, among us and like one of us….
Mary: The people who walked in darkness saw a great light… and you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, have not been the least of the villages of Israel, because in you has been born the one who will free the people and bring the promised peace…
In him shall rest the Spirit of the Lord, fluttering as in the beginning of the world, and its wings shall cover the breadth and width of his land, Emmanuel….
We do not know the exact year of Jesus’ birth. The reference by the gospel of Luke to a census ordered by Rome gives us an approximate clue. The information shows that Jesus came into this world in the years immediately prior to the final annexation of Palestine to the Roman empire, or a little later. It was during this period that the census was ordered, although nothing is certain about its duration and its exact dates. The census was an instrument of control employed by Rome over her dominions. What was implemented in Israel, according to Luke, was ordered by Publico Sulpicio Quirino, legate of Rome in the province of Syria.
The census had of two phases: the registration and the collection of taxes.
The first phase consisted of putting up the official listing of persons and properties all over the country. In the second phase, each was informed of the corresponding taxes to be paid and collection of the same would start here. The second phase – which some researchers simply refer to as “census” – seems to have taken place toward year 6 after Jesus’ birth. If we accept these data, the birth of Jesus would have occurred during the first period: that of the registration. In any case, Luke was particularly interested in this historical and political aspect, since the trips from one region to another on account of the census justify the transfer of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Giving birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the city of David, established between him and the great king of Israel, a relationship which is not only symbolic but familiar as well.
The census was received with real indignation by the men and women all over the country. That law formalized the submission of the people and the nation to the Roman empire. At the start of the census, Palestine was constituted as a province of Rome. According to the imperialistic organization, since that time only the right of the Israelites to use the property (to cultivate and administer it) was recognized, its ownership being reserved for Rome. For the people, this was not only a form of political and economic domination, but a real blasphemy. For the people of Israel, the land was sacred. God was it’s sole owner and it was God’s will that no one should permanently possess it. The social laws of Israel underscored the above essence or meaning. From the start of the imperial domination, alongside such measures was nurtured a mute but fierce resistance to the troops and the imperial officials. The national ruling classes (priests, theologians) were also disturbed, reacting in a general manner, and trying to make the new order “acceptable” to the people. They sought nothing else but to retain their positions of privilege and power before the new foreign authorities.
The journey undertaken by Joseph and Mary, as well as many of their countrymen, on account of the census – from Nazareth to Bethlehem – could have lasted about five days on the road. Bethlehem was an important city at the time of Jesus’ birth. It is situated about 10 kilometers from Jerusalem, toward the south of the capital, in the lands of the family of Ephrath. (That is why we say “Bethlehem of Ephratah”). The name Bethlehem means “house of bread.” David, the most beloved king of the Israelites was born here. He was a shepherd and was tending the sheep in the fields of that city when he was anointed as king of his country (1 S 16:1-13). The prophet Micah had also announced that from Bethlehem would come the future king of Israel, the new David who would shepherd the people (Mic 5:1-5). Luke as well as Matthew introduce Jesus as heir from David’s lineage and say that in him shall be fulfilled the prophecy of Micah’s announcement of the place of origin of the awaited Messiah. They make catechesis with this, explaining at the start of the gospel, “who” Jesus was and what was to be his mission.
Bethlehem at present is a beautiful Arab city, with small white houses piling up over a hill. Stands out in the midst of all these is the Basilica of the Nativity which was constructed one thousand five hundred years ago. It still exists, and is one of the oldest churches in the world. It is a big church, with a narrow and very low entrance door, because it was built during the war. Having no other door than this, no armed horsemen were able to enter the temple. In the interior – ravaged by time, by the smoke from candles, and by the passage of thousands of pilgrims – there is a small grotto as a reminder of the place where Jesus was born. A star on the floor points to the very spot of his birth, in a manner more pious than historical. The following inscription is written: “On this spot was born Jesus of the Virgin Mary.” Very near is an excavation in the grotto venerated as the manger. These are dear and touching spots for any believer. Through the centuries, thousands of Christians have gathered in this cave to celebrate the Eucharist and to sing traditional Christmas carols.
Hundreds of years of tradition, images, songs, carols, clay figurines and other beautiful manifestations of popular art have made Christmas the most deeply-rooted of feasts among the Christians and non-Christians in countries influenced by the western culture of the whole Christendom. Christmas is also a religious feast where one “sees” more. But, because of a literal interpretation of the evangelical text or because of the weight of several artistic tradtions, we have “seen” the new-born Jesus as a child born “mysteriously:” in solitude, in the silence of the night, away from everyone. Without denying the beauty and the history earned by these representations, it may be useful to see Christmas in another perspective. The traditional scene separates Joseph and Mary from their countrymen, who would have been under the same predicament during the period of the census. Then it separates the new-born babe, making him the only child and different from the rest. This imagery negates something essential to the mystery of the incarnation. God wanted Jesus to be like the rest, and his family to be one of the Galilean families. If Jesus was born for all, then it is important, right at the start of his life, to be born within the sight of everyone. It was precisely in our midst, in this encampment which is the world and human history, that he wanted to put up his camp (Jn 1:14). In Bethlehem, as in all relatively important cities of Palestine, there were inns, big lodging places for those who are on their way to Jerusalem or other cities. That “there was no place” for Joseph and Mary in one of those huge “caravansaries” (place for the caravans, where some people and animals stayed: horses, camels, donkeys…) was not due to the “unkindness” of the innkeepers who rejected the Son of God even before his birth. There was no room because the above-mentioned places were already filled or, probably the prices were so high that Joseph and Mary could not afford to pay them. Certainly, the businessmen took advantage of the census by charging more for accommodations. In any case, when the Galileans went to Judea, they tried to stay together. It is no wonder they put up collective tents, more so because of the special circumstances of that compulsory journey.
Mary gave birth to Jesus. Her baby did not come out miraculously over the straw. Jesus was born like all of us, the fruit of the labor and pains of his mother. It is completely logical that she be assisted by her countrywomen, who were more knowledgeable about childbirth than sh