By James H. Snowden
ow it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled.” This is the point at which the orderly and scholarly Luke opens his account of the birth of our Lord. It seems like going a long way off from and around to the end in view. But there are no isolated facts and forces in the world and all things work together. When we see providence start in we never can tell where it is going to come out. If God is about to bless us, he may start the chain of causation that shall at length reach us in some far-off place or land; or if he is about to save a soul in China he may start with one of us in the contribution we make to foreign missions. Cæsar Augustus, master of the world, from time to time ordered a census to be taken of the empire that he might know its resources and reap from it a richer harvest of taxes. It was probably between the months of December and March, B. C. 5–4, that such a census was being taken in the province of Syria.
In accordance with ancient Jewish usage, all citizens repaired to the tribe and village from which they were descended, and were there enrolled. In the town of Nazareth in the north lived Joseph, a village carpenter, and Mary, his espoused wife, who though a virgin was great with child, having been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and the mystery having been revealed to her and her betrothed husband. They were both descended from the royal line of David, and therefore to Bethlehem they must go. With us such a journey of eighty miles would mean no more than stepping on a railway car at nine o’clock in the morning and stepping off at noon. But with them it meant a toilsome journey on foot of several days. Slowly they wended their way southward, led on by the irresistible hand of Cæsar, far away on his throne. The ancient Hebrew prophecy of Micah and the imperial decree of Cæsar thus marvelously fitted into each other and worked together. Mary must have known of this prophecy, and we know not with what a sense of mystery and fear and joy she drew near to the predicted place where the Messiah was to be born.
Bethlehem sits like a crown on its rocky ridge. At length its walls and towers loomed in the distance, and then presently up the steep road climbed the carpenter and his espoused wife and passed through the gate into the village. When they came to the inn, it was already crowded with visitors, driven thither by the decree of Cæsar that had set all Palestine in commotion. In connection with the inn, generally the central space of its four-square inclosure, but probably in this case a cave in the limestone rock, was a stable, or place for the camels and horses and cattle of the guests. Among these oriental people it was (and is) no uncommon thing for travelers, when the chambers of the inn were fully occupied, to make a bed of straw and spend the night in this place. In this stable, possibly the very cave where now stands the Church of the Nativity, Mary and Joseph found lodgings for the night. It was not a mark of degradation or social inferiority for them to do this, though it was an indication of their meager means, as wealthy visitors would doubtless have found better accommodations.
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