Caesar Augustus, the master bookkeeper of the world, sat in his palace by the Tiber. Before him was stretched a map labeled Orbis Terrorum, Imperium Romanum. He was about to issue an order for a census of the world; for all the nations of the civilized world were subject to Rome. There was only one capital in this world: Rome; only one official language: Latin; only one ruler: Caesar. To every outpost, to every satrap and governor, the order went out: every Roman subject must be enrolled in his own city. On the fringe of the Empire, in the little village of Nazareth, soldiers tacked up on walls the order for all the citizens to register in the towns of their family origins.
Joseph, the builder, an obscure descendant of the great King David, was obliged by that very fact to register in Bethlehem, the city of David. In accordance with the edict, Mary and Joseph set out from the Village of Nazareth for the village of Bethlehem, which lies about five miles on the other side of Jerusalem. Five hundred years earlier the prophet Micheas had prophesied concerning that little village:
Out to the hillside to a stable cave, where shepherds sometimes drove their flocks in time of storm, Joseph and Mary went at last for shelter. There, in a place of peace in the lonely abandonment of a cold windswept cave; there, under the floor of the world, He Who is born without a mother in Heaven, is born without a father on earth.
Of every other child that is born into the world, friends can say that it resembles his mother. This was the first instance in time that anyone could say that the mother resembled the Child. This is the beautiful paradox of the Child Who made His mother; the mother, too, was only a child. It was also the first time in the history of this world that anyone could ever think of Heaven as being anywhere else than "somewhere up there"; when the Child was in her arms, Mary now looked down to Heaven.
In the filthiest place in the world, a stable, Purity was born. He, Who was later to be slaughtered by men acting as beasts, was born among beasts. He, Who would call Himself the "living Bread descended from Heaven," was laid in a manger, literally, a place to eat. Centuries before, the Jews had worshiped tIle golden calf, and the Greeks, the ass. Men bowed down before them as before God. The ox and the ass now were present to make their innocent reparation, bowing down before their God.
There was no room in the inn, but there was room in the stable. The inn is the gathering place of public opinion, the focal point of the world's moods, the rendezvous of the worldly, the rallying place of the popular and the successful. But the stable is a place for the outcasts, the ignored, the forgotten. The world might have expected the Son of God to be born---if He was to be born at all---in an inn. A stable would be the last place in the world where one would have looked for Him. Divinity is always where one least expects to find it.
No worldly mind would ever have suspected that He Who could make the sun warm the earth would one day have need of an ox and an ass to warm Him with their breath; that He Who, in the language of Scriptures, could stop the turning about of Arcturus would have His birthplace dictated by an imperial census; that He, Who clothed the fields with grass, would Himself be naked; that He, from Whose hands came planets and worlds, would one day have tiny arms that were not long enough to touch the huge heads of the cattle; that the feet which trod the everlasting hills would one day be too weak to walk; that the Eternal Word would be dumb; that Omnipotence would be wrapped in swaddling clothes; that Salvation would lie in a manger; that the bird which built the nest would be hatched therein---no one would have ever suspected that God coming to this earth would ever be so helpless. And that is precisely why so many miss Him. Divinity is always where one least expects to find it.
If the artist is at home in his studio because the paintings are the creation of his own mind; if the sculptor is at home among his statues because they are the work of his own hands; if the husband-man is at home among his vines because he planted them; and if the father is at home among his children because they are his own, then surely, argues the world, He Who made the world should be at home in it. He should come into it as an artist into his studio, and as a father into his home; but, for the Creator to come among His creatures and be ignored by them; for God to come among His own and not be received by His own; for God to be homeless at home---that could only mean one thing to the worldly mind: the Babe could not have been God at all. And that is just why it missed Him. Divinity is always where one least expects to find it.
The Son of God made man was invited to enter His own world through a back door. Exiled from the earth, He was born under the earth, in a sense, the first Cave Man in recorded history. There He shook the earth to its very foundations. Because He was born in a cave, all who wish to see Him must stoop. To stoop is the mark of humility. The proud refuse to stoop and, therefore, they miss Divinity. Those, however, who bend their egos and enter, find that they are not in a cave at all, but in a new universe where sits a Babe on His mother's lap, with the world poised on His fingers.
The manger and the Cross thus stand at the
two extremities of the Savior's life! He accepted the manger because
was no room in the inn; He accepted the Cross because men said, "We
not have this Man for our king." Disowned upon entering, rejected upon
leaving, He was laid in a stranger's stable at the beginning, and a
grave at the end. An ox and an ass surrounded His crib at Bethlehem;
thieves were to flank His Cross on Calvary. He was wrapped in swaddling
bands in His birthplace, He was again laid in swaddling clothes in His
torn-clothes symbolic of the limitations imposed on His Divinity when
took a human form.
The shepherds watching their flocks nearby were told by the Angels:
Covetousness was already being challenged by His poverty, while pride was confronted with the humiliation of a stable. The swathing of Divine power, which needs to accept no bounds, is often too great a tax upon minds which think only of power. They cannot grasp the idea of Divine condescension, or of the "rich man, becoming poor that through His poverty, we might be rich." Men shall have no greater sign of Divinity than the absence of power as they expect it---the spectacle of a Babe Who said He would come in the clouds of heaven, now being wrapped in the cloths of earth.
He, Whom the Angels call the "Son of the most High," descended into the red dust from which we all were born, to be one with weak, fallen man in all things, save sin. And it is the swaddling clothes which constitute His "sign." If He Who is Omnipotence had come with thunderbolts, there would have been no sign. There is no sign unless something happens contrary to nature. The brightness of the sun is no sign, but an eclipse is. He said that on the last day, His coming would be heralded by "signs in the sun," perhaps an extinction of light. At Bethlehem the Divine Son went into an eclipse, so that only the humble of spirit might recognize Him.
Only two classes of people found the Babe; the shepherds and the Wise Men; the simple and the learned; those who knew that they knew nothing, and those who knew that they did not know everything. He is never seen by the man of one book; never by the man who thinks he knows. Not even God can tell the proud anything! Only the humble can find God!
As Caryll Houselander put it, "Bethlehem is the inscape of Calvary, just as the snowflake is the inscape of the universe." This same idea was expressed by the poet who said that if he knew the flower in a crannied wall in all its details, he would know "what God and man is." Scientists tell us that the atom comprehends within itself the mystery of the solar system.
It was not so much that His birth cast a shadow on His life, and thus led to His death; it was rather that the Cross was there from the beginning, and it cast its shadow backward to His birth. Ordinary mortals go from the known to the unknown submitting themselves to forces beyond their control; hence we can speak of their "tragedies." But He went from the known to the known, from the reason for His coming, namely, to be "Jesus" or "Savior," to the fulfillment of His coming, namely, the death on the Cross. Hence, there was no tragedy in His life; for, tragedy implies the unforeseeable, the uncontrollable, and the fatalistic. Modern life is tragic when there is spiritual darkness and unredeemable guilt. But for the Christ Child there were no uncontrollable forces; no submission to fatalistic chains from which there could be no escape; but there was an "inscape"---the microcosmic manger summarizing, like an atom, the macrocosmic Cross on Golgotha.In His First Advent, He took the name of Jesus, or "Savior;" it will be in His Second Advent that He win take the name of "Judge." Jesus was not a name He had before He assumed a human nature; it properly refers to that which was united to His Divinity, not that which existed from an eternity. Some say "Jesus taught" as they would say "Plato taught," never once thinking that His name means "Savior from sin." Once He received this name, Calvary became completely a part of Him. The Shadow of the Cross that fen on His cradle also covered His naming. This was "His Father's business"; everything else would be incidental to it.