Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Story of the Gift of Christmas

The Story of the Gift of Christmas
Remembering the most important birth in world history
Based on Gospel According to Luke 2:1-7

Khen Lim

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Image source: Drive Thru History


You could hear the insects buzzing. Such was the solitude of travelling in such arid conditions. There weren’t that many trees around and so shade was sparse. 
Travelling was exhausting for the two in what was a very long and mindless journey but it didn’t take long for them to come upon patches of traffic. At this time of the year, there were others who were also on their way to somewhere and it could be either direction.

The journey for these two have been three days in the making since leaving Nazareth and give or take two more days and they would be in Bethlehem. Before they left, the idea of making the trip sounded fine. In fact Joseph thought it was great to do a trip with his newly-wed. 
Knowing that the baby was due soon, it would give them the opportunity to grow their relationship, understand each other better and learn a few more things about each other. When the baby comes, Joseph thought, there probably wouldn’t be enough time to do all of that. Hence, a five-day trip back home for him looked like a pretty good way to spend their time together.
But that was just him. Now almost thirty-six hours on their third day on the road, he and Mary might think differently. Certainly that air of excitement might even have evaporated into thin air by now. From her point of view, this was one journey too long. 

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Image source: cfpenitents.blogspot.com
Just after the first hour, she’d felt nothing but longing for it to end. Like the restless kid seated in the backseat repeatedly asking his dad, “Are we there yet?” Mary had long wished that Bethlehem was right next door.
Not a chance. From Nazareth, her husband’s hometown was the better part of 100 miles apart, riding through some of the most forbidding and forsaken geography known to man. 
But what made this trip the least romantic in her mind, regardless of what Joseph might have thought, Mary was with child. Just one look at her was enough for anyone to tell that the baby wasn’t far away now. There wasn’t much time left before the hour would come.
Mary was already in a state of discomfort no matter what she did. Walk a little too far and she’d hurt. Stand a little too long and she’d hurt. Sit a little too much and she’d hurt. Lie down a little too long and she’d hurt. Even eating was not a pleasurable thing. 
Breathing wasn’t much easier either. Now in her ninth month – her final trimester as we say today – Mary was astride a donkey and her husband, Joseph, led in front on foot along the stony path by the River Jordan.

The census
This were the days of the Roman Empire and Gaius Octavius Thurinus better known as Augustus, Julius’ grandson, was Imperator Caesar. With ambition to cover the whole world under Roman rule, great amounts of money were needed. Not that this should come as a surprise. 
Every government even in ancient times had an insatiable need for money and the Romans were no less culpable except that this time, it wasn’t a Herodian decree from Jerusalem but instead, it came all the way from Augustus.
Like all devout Jews, Joseph had heard this name before. The Province of Judea (Iudaea) at that time had no Prefect. Coponius, its first was only installed in 6AD. During Joseph’s time, it was under reconstruction by the Roman administration. That was also the time when the first Roman tax census was being taken by Quirinius, the Legate of Syria. 
Of course, none of this mattered to someone like Joseph. He had no use for anything Roman. And besides, no one would consider him a political fanatic. Neither did he belong to the anti-Roman Jewish political movement called ζηλωτής (zelotes or Zealots) formed by Judas of Galilee, which was still a few years away from then. Rather, Joseph was a simple carpenter. With no political ambitions whatsoever, no Roman would waste his time taking notice of him.
Now Joseph and Mary are on their way to Bethlehem because of this tax census that Quirinius was conducting in the region. It meant every Jew would need to find his way home and make himself available for the headcount as a means for the Romans to eventually collect taxes to meet Augustus’ ambitions for the empire.

Which census?
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Joseph and Mary prepare to leave Nazareth en route to Bethlehem (Image source: drafthouse.com)

At the time of Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem, not the whole Roman Empire was enrolled at the same time. Given that correspondence in the ancient world was nowhere near as fast as the more modern postal system let alone the spontaneity of the Internet, this is a plausible historian view. 
It is therefore quite likely that the tax census would have taken quite a few years to cover all including the outlying provinces. In fact, a great deal would also have depended on how amenable the political situation was and how willing the local rulers were to help the Romans along.
Here is where we may have an alleged biblical erratum. Apparently, according to modern scholars, the Bible – or at least Luke’s Gospel – is erroneous in claiming that the census ordered by Augustus was at the time of Jesus’ birth, which would be around 4-5BC when “Quirinius was governor.” 
But Quirinius wasn’t one until 6AD. While many deemed the Bible flawed or that Luke had made an error, Scottish archaeologist and New Testament scholar Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (1851-1939) thought otherwise.
By that time, there was one other census that was not recorded biblically but yet it was also conducted by Quirinius. The historian Josephus does document this fact in Antiquities XVIII, 26 [ii.1] where he stated that it took place in 6AD. Looking more closely at Luke 2:2, we must take note that the census around the time of Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem was actually the very first Roman census, which I mentioned earlier. 
This was when Quirinius was the Legate (Governor) of Syria, which also covered the area bound by the Province of Judea. To say that this was the ‘first’ means that there was another census, one that came after. This would be the one Josephus mentioned, which Luke would have been aware of.
Sources outside the Bible have also pointed to Quirinius having been in two positions of authority and leadership but both of these might not be the same. In 12BC under the pleasure of Augustus, he was named consul, the highest elected political office in the Roman republic. Yet under the auspices of the Empire by then, this was merely a symbolic representative of Rome’s heritage and actually held little power and authority.
Between 12BC and 2BC, it was he who led a military campaign against the Homonadenses, and sometime around 5BC to 3BC, he became the Legate of Galatia. 
Then after the banishment of Herod Archelaus the ethnarch in 6AD, he was appointed the Legate of Syria with specific instructions to assess Iudaea (Judea under Roman administration) for taxation purposes. In fact, one of his inaugural duties was to conduct the tax census as part of this order from Augustus.
It was because of this census that the Jews almost staged an open revolt. Had it not been for the high priest Joazar’s intervention, things would have gone disastrously. As it were, Jewish law regarded censuses as verboten. It was bad enough that they despised their pagan conquerors but heaping on the census was like the straw that could finally break the camel’s back. 
However, despite Joazar’s efforts, Judas of Galilee rose to prominence with the formation of the Zealots as the fourth Jewish political pillar according to Josephus. But this wasn’t the census that Luke was referring to because this was way ahead of the time during Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. And in that sense, contrary to modern discourses, Luke’s chronological reference is not flawed.
At any rate, Rome’s first census to befall Israel wasn’t one without compromises, considering what Jewish customs that would have conflicted with. As we know, censuses were deeply frowned upon but now with one coming along their way, there was a serious logistic problem. 
While the Romans would have enrolled subjects in accordance to where they lived at that time, the Jews consider their family lineages based on their ancestral origins, which meant they were all forced to uproot themselves and return to their hometowns. This was why both Joseph and Mary had made their arduous journey at such an inopportune time when the baby was about due.
Right about then, Jewish families were all travelling in the dead of winter. Despite the momentary quietness, Joseph and Mary eventually encountered those who were headed far south all the way to Hebron or Beersheba while others would crisscross their way northwards to Capernaum while others were making treks for Jerusalem.

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Bethlehem, Looking Towards the Dead Sea by David Roberts, RA 1796-1853 (Image source: the Victorian Web)
As for Joseph, he was taking his wife to a little village about six miles south of Jerusalem, a place called Bethlehem, which was remote enough to be difficult to find in Judea. Even so, this little village did have one outstanding hard-to-ignore fame – a thousand years earlier, David, son of Jesse, was born there. 
In fact, his whole family hailed from there. David, as all Jews knew, became their greatest king. He was their inspiration and with the pagan occupiers in place now, David remained a painful reminder of what Israel used to be like. If only there was another David who would come along and drive the Romans out, many Jews would lament.
Memories of David were hard to erase. Even children born a thousand years thereafter knew and revered him. He was the elephant in the room, made even more ominous because the Romans were now forcing their impressions upon their culture and lifestyle. All their prophets knew of David too. 
In fact, seven hundred years earlier on, one of their prophets, Micah, had spoken about and prophesied that there would be a Messiah who would one day be born in Bethlehem. It was this prediction that many Jews had focused on another David who would rouse up an army to annihilate the Romans.

Onward home
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Image source: Meridian Magazine

Trudging through the dusty trails leading home was tough, made tougher because Mary was precariously nearing the end of her trimester. The baby would be coming anytime now. Yet there they were, the two of them, struggling through the last leg of their journey, hoping against hope that there was still a sliver of time for them to make it.
From Nazareth to Bethlehem, the journey could have actually been shorter if only traditions didn’t get in the way. As it were, Joseph and Mary – and every other Jew for that matter – could not take the shorter route because to do that would have meant coursing through Samaria, a territory that no Jew worth his soul would want to do. 
Therefore, in order to get from Nazareth up north to Bethlehem down south, one had to go east via the Valley of Jezreel across the River Jordan and then followed the valley all the way down south before recrossing the river to Jericho. 
From there, Jerusalem was next through the mountains. After that, it was only a short back straight to little Bethlehem. With all of that travelling in mind, Joseph was prudent enough to bring along a donkey for a very pregnant Mary.
Not only was the tracking and backtracking across the river unnecessarily superfluous, pretty much the whole journey required them to negotiate through desolate wilderness particularly from Jericho to Jerusalem where the mountainous trekking would have been made all the more challenging – treacherous, even – with Mary in her condition. 
In His later years as rabbi, it would be their son Jesus who would tell the story of a man robbed and attacked and then left for dead on that very same route. But then there is every likelihood that Joseph and Mary knew about the dangers. Even if they didn’t, someone would have advised to take heed.

Seemingly endless trial
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Nazareth to Bethlehem through inhospitable terrain on foot (Image source: Life and Heart Matters)

The tax census had caused the most travelled routes within the Judean province to be jammed with families moving in all directions like endless trials of work ants busy making their way everywhere. And none of them would have been elated since none of these were holidaymakers looking to vacation for the winter break. And this included Joseph and Mary.
If Joseph was frustrated with the arduous journeying, Mary would have been far worse off. In her perpetual discomfort, nothing was right and nothing her husband did to help could lessen her ordeal. For as often as they would take little breaks along the journey, she’d soon realised that standing up to stretch herself was just as difficult as sitting down on the donkey. 
And in all the little moves she made to try to get comfortable, her womb would remind her that the time was fast approaching. She couldn’t exactly look to Joseph for comfort either for he was inundated with misery, tiredness and discouragement. Invariably, there was nothing pleasant about this whole trip.
Both Joseph and Mary had originally wanted the baby to be born at home, meaning Nazareth. It would have been so much easier and effortless. Help was plentiful. The neighbours would have been quite ready to give them a hand if they needed. Everything was within easy reach. And of course, there was no necessity for any hard travelling through hostile territory. 
Typically as a male Jew, all Joseph had to do was patiently wait outside while the midwife got to work. It would’ve been very neat, dead easy and straightforward. But Augustus plunged them – and all other Jewish families – into pandemonium.
Now on their journey, one more day had passed. Having just crossed back the River Jordan, they were headed towards Jericho in the southern part of the province. Mary looked as visibly tired as she felt and yet the worst of their journey had yet to begin. That final hard stretch between Jericho and Jerusalem still laid ahead of them. 
This was where the mountainous trekking could take its toll. If only they could get to a little non-descript village of Bethany on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives where they could take a breather. After all, that’s almost the midway point for them.
So up they went and together with other travellers, they began to enter the mountains. From Jericho to Jerusalem was about 22 miles but the carriage road meandered through dangerous geography, strewn with deathly heights, cliffs, craggy valleys and stony creek beds. This was certainly the land of the prophets but these days, the barren hills were filled with nomadic Bedouins who were long accustomed to such living conditions.

Songs of Zion
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From Jericho to Jerusalem through mountainous terrain (Image source: Brian's Nativity Traill)

As they slowly trekked up the mountains, the travellers began to sing songs of Zion to uplift their own spirit. Bouncing off the narrow and twisty mountainous passes, their collective pilgrim choruses resonated the words so familiar during such ancient times. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help” (Ps 121:1-2, KJV). “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go unto the house of the Lord’” (Ps 122:1, KJV). “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labour in vain who build it” (Ps 127:1, KJV).
The words evoked history, tradition, pride, faith and loyalty to Jerusalem. ‘Zion’ the name was designated for the Jebusite fortress that straddled the hill crest between the Kidron and Tyropoeon Valleys that were once captured by David (2 Sam 5:5-9). The name was used to cover the hill up to the point where the temple mount was and then eventually encapsulated the entire city of Jerusalem.
Songs of Zion naturally then bore references to Jerusalem but they were also abound in the Psalms. As in Psalm 48:1-2, they were uniquely adulating of this city of the Great King unlike any others so much so that they were even famous among Israel’s neighbours and enemies. 
It was said that Babylonian soldiers had overheard them sung to spur encouragement among the besieged Jerusalemites before the collapse in 586BC. In fact, even in captivity and forced to march along the canals at spearpoint, they demanded the right to sing them! (Ps 137:3)
And as Joseph and Mary were joined by the throngs that journeyed their way through the mountains, they sang to celebrate God’s seat and right of presence in Jerusalem and that no matter the tumult by foreign forces, it was His omnipotence that ensured Israel remained safe and secured (Ps 46:6, 48:4). Such songs expressed great intense longing for Jerusalem, for the house of God and for their wellbeing (Ps 84:1-4,10, 122:1-2,6-9).
And so as everyone trudged on, they sang from their hearts. They evoked deep within the wells of their heart a longing for Jerusalem and a desire to praise God. Gone and forgotten were the hardship of the journey, the steep crevasses in between the narrow widths of mountain passes and the sharp threatening falloffs that plunged deep below. 
But hanging on almost to the rear end of the group was Mary, perched quietly on the donkey. She barely spoke a word probably because she was suffering in silence. As each step they took, she felt the trepidations of a birth coming ever closer to fruition. Meanwhile Joseph, also quietly walking, prayed and prayed that his wife would not seek to give birth right in the middle of nowhere.

Bethlehem in sight
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On the way to Bethlehem (Image source: Heart Towards Home)

By nightfall, Joseph and Mary had reached Jerusalem. Both were tired beyond words; yet there were another six more miles to go before they reached their destination. As they entered the outer gates of the ancient city, Mary finally broke her silence.
“It’s not long now,” she said quietly and with great effort. 
Joseph awoke from his stupor, almost surprised by his wife’s words.
“H-h-how d’you know, Mary?” he hesitantly asked.
By now the group that was with them had long scattered for most if not all of them were headed for Jerusalem. On the last lonely six miles to Bethlehem, it was just them. Up above, Mary cast her gaze. The sky was deepening but the stars were awakening. Some sparkled from afar. But one of them right above appeared the brightest of them all and it seemed to be following them. They didn’t know anything about this star but instinct told Mary that it was probably not a bad omen.
“I just know,” she replied.
That reply took all of three words but they didn’t offer Joseph any better clarity. ‘Not long now’ could be minutes or hours away. Although he was sure that Mary didn’t mean it would be tomorrow, the fact was he didn’t know the real sense of that urgency any more than he already was aware even before they reached Jericho. 
It was of no consolation one way or another to him. The only assurance was that for each step of the way now, they were really getting closer. Given the usual walking pace, Joseph and Mary should be a little less than an hour away now.
Suddenly the route became easier. The road was more than good enough for the walk to be more pleasant. The scenery had also changed. Now beckoned the dusty olive trees that lined the road, looking gnarly with their scraggly roots clinging to the rocky hillsides. Patches of flocks of sheep could still be seen as shepherds were now gathering them back for the night.
Just over the next hillock where he stood with Mary on the donkey, a cluster of lit-up homes sprawled before their expansive view. At last, this was Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown. He paused and took in the sight. Seated on the donkey, an exhausted Mary took a peek at her husband whose breath seemed taken up by what he saw. 
She realised he was caught in a moment of awe. When a smile broke across his lips, she understood that familiar feeling of homecoming. It all made the trip worth all the bother. For all that they went through to get here from Nazareth, getting home was an unbelievable feeling.
As they entered the village, Joseph struck up an odd sense of trepidation and nervous excitement. He was so overwhelmed to be back home where he grew up but at the same time, he feared that either he might have forgotten the people he grew up with or the reverse. Through the quietened streets, everyone was already home and behind closed doors. Light from the moon bathed across, leaving long dark shadows across where they walked.
From what he could remember, not much had changed since he left. In many ways, that was a relief, he thought, because at least, they wouldn’t get lost. Not that they would; at any rate, Bethlehem was just like many of the dozen little towns that dotted the region. Even so to Joseph, it was home. Nothing could ever change that no matter what. And besides, it felt so good to be home again.

The moment arrives

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Light of the World by Mark Keathley reflects a likely imagery of Bethlehem where Jesus is the Light of the World (Jn 8:12) (Image source: Parsons Gallery)

Just as he was drinking in the sights and the familiar scents that pervaded the town, reality came crashing down as Mary called out to him from behind.
“Joseph…”
Startled, Joseph turns around and looks at his wife.
“Yes, Mary?”
“Joseph, we need to look for somewhere for the layover. I’m way beyond tired,” Mary said.
Joseph gazed dreamily at her. At the thought of his beautiful young wife whom he was almost forced to divorce not that long ago (Mt 1:19). Thankfully the angel Gabriel had come into his dream and filled him in with the vision of the Lord and that to them, would be born a son whose name was already given as Jesus (v.20). 
In her, right now, all he could see was her physical beauty and sereneness. Even in her exhaustion, she was indeed truly beautiful. No words he could think of could describe what he saw with his eyes.
“Yes, we really ought to. In a few minutes, I think we’ll be able to find somewhere,” Joseph replied.
Mary drew in a deep breath.
“But Joseph, I really have to stop. Now, I mean,” she said.
Now? The sound of that word jolted him to alertness.
“You mean, now? Is it time already?”
Joseph’s eyes bulged at the very thought that the moment had arrived. That moment he had long anticipated. That moment that he struggled to understand how he should actually feel. Of course the thought of Mary giving birth was exciting but he was at the same time, he was doubly anxious.
In the simplest of gestures, Mary nodded weakly. No need for words. Her expression said it all and to make sure he fully and unreservedly understood, she gentled touched and rubbed her stomach. And that was all it took to rock Joseph’s world. And with all that, foreboding thoughts entered Joseph’s mind as he began to entertain the idea that though his hometown, he might end up feeling more like a stranger after all these years of absence.
Bethlehem then and Bethlehem now could be a world apart. It might be home but all the same, it could as well have been somewhere else and it mightn’t make much difference. The thing was that so much water had gone under the bridge. Joseph’s childhood friends weren’t likely be around for Bethlehem didn’t exactly offered much of a career prospect.
Down the road, six miles to be exact, Jerusalem offered significantly brighter options, of course. After all, even his own family had virtually all moved away. In their places could well be strangers who’d hardly know who he was, much less rustle up a cup of coffee together and chat over old times. Come to think of it, finding a quick place for a layover mightn’t be as straightforward as he’d thought.

The shock
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Image source: lds.org

The truth of the matter was that Joseph and Mary weren’t late arriving. Joseph was well aware that because of the tax census, even his own family members would have also returned to Bethlehem. And here was the real problem – no one offered them accommodation. 
As Joseph discovered, it wasn’t because there weren’t any rooms available anywhere but instead, the people had taken it upon themselves to reject an unwedded soon-to-be mother. In other words, they chose to reject the young couple who was carrying the Messiah.
The birth of Jesus would therefore have to be in an enclosure among the livestock. By rejecting them so heartlessly, Joseph was experiencing abject shame and alienation. It wasn’t something he had expected; not even in the most remote manner. 
Besides, whether Bethlehem had or didn’t have an inn available was of academic value. He knew that given the nature of the guests at inns, it wasn’t a safe enough place to bring Mary to especially now that she was pregnant and about to give birth.

The debate about the inn
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The kataluma (guest room) above the lower floor where animals were housed as a first-century exhibit at the Boston Museum (Image source: museumofboston.org)

Much has been assumed over the centuries among casual Bible readers that an inn and its innkeeper were all part of the complexion of the story of Jesus’ birth. In fact so much was written about this and the narrative has constantly made it to the silver screen. But this may not be true as Doug Greenwold explains:
“Luke gives us a clue to what might be going on in Bethlehem when he deliberately uses the Greek word kataluma in 2:7, which most translators have preferred to render as ‘inn.’ However as we will shortly see, from a contextual perspective, the preferred understanding of kataluma is ‘guest room.’ Those who would argue that kataluma could also mean ‘inn’ in this verse lose the thrust of their argument when the cultural contexts of first-century ‘inns’ is examined.
“Archaeology tells us that inns populated the major trade routes in first-century Palestine and were typically located 16-18 miles apart from outside of towns on major routes, the average daily distance travelled by a caravan. These inns were round, stone hedgerows roughly four feet tall and 40-60 feet in diameter – essentially a circular walled space that was open to the sky.
“In these commercial establishments overseen by an innkeeper, there were no rooms to rent, no privacy, little security, just one shared common area. The ‘inns’ were rough and tumble environments often inhabited by caravanner rogues plying the trade routes. These scoundrels often brought to these open lodging areas all the ambience of a biker bar of today. When Luke makes reference to these kinds of ‘inns,’ he uses a very different Greek word – pandoxeion – the word used for ‘inn’ in the Good Samaritan story. One thing is clear; no self-respecting man would ever bring a pregnant woman about to give birth to a pandoxeion.”
Source: Greenwold, Doug (Mar 2014) The Glorious and ‘Shameful’ Birth of Jesus (Preserving Bible Times).
In the world of biblical scholarship, there is much debate about whether Bethlehem at that time had any such major – or trade – routes running across or through or by it. Many reasoned that there were; after all, without such routes, traders would not have been able to bring their supplies to Judea and Samaria. 
As for those who suggest that Bethlehem was too near to Jerusalem to have its own inn, some scholars believe that to be untrue, citing the town had its own fair share of visitors in the hill country and that they could just as easily stop at any point along the north-south route. This, they say, is well substantiated by the story of the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19.
Having said all of that, three points must be clear before we continue with the story. Firstly, an inn may or may not have existed in Bethlehem during that time. Secondly, even if there were one, it was highly unlikely that Joseph would risk Mary to stay over in one. And thirdly, Luke never mentioned anything about such an inn.

Denial and rejection
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Joseph and Mary were rejected by his people in Bethlehem (Image source: Milton Goh Blog)

Although the Bible doesn’t document much of Joseph’s life beyond what we know, we are reminded by Luke that he belonged to the lineage of David, son of Jesse (Lk 2:4). Both came from the same Bethlehem where hospitality was greatly valued. 
This extended to how visiting families were treated much less women who were just about to give birth. This part is important especially as Joseph and Mary now found themselves in his hometown and getting a reception they hadn’t expected.
Bethlehem then had a population of around 2,000 odd. If we’re averaging a family with the parents and four offspring, then we’re estimating that there would be at least 300 small homes with one kataluma (guest room) each. In other words, the mathematical probability that Joseph would find somewhere to lay over would have been pretty high. 
Even given that many had returned home for the census, their chances wouldn’t have been that impacted especially since it was evident that Mary badly needed somewhere to be comfortable. Jewish hospitality being what it was then, there really shouldn’t be a problem.
So why was it that none in the Davidic clan offered their kataluma to the couple? Didn’t any of them notice Mary’s condition? Wasn’t that evident or pressing enough? More so, what was Luke trying to say to us today with the passage in 2:7 concerning his intentional use of the word kataluma? Take note that in the NLT version, the word used here is ‘lodging’ whereas in the NIV, it says ‘guest room.’
Herein, the apostle offered up a further clue here as well:
He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.” (Lk 2:5, NLT)
He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.” (Lk 2:5, NIV)
Isn’t it odd that Luke would repeat these facts after he’d already said so in the previous chapter? Not really, if you realise that the apostle was simply trying to tell us that because Joseph and Mary weren’t married yet and she was already pregnant, no one in Bethlehem was prepared to offer them the use of their kataluma
At this point, we all need to better understand first-century Jewish marriage customs in order to cast a better light on what both of them were experiencing and why:
When Joseph and Mary became betrothed to one another, a scribe in Nazareth would then draw up a betrothal contract that declares that they were officially and legally married. They were, in other words, to be considered husband and wife by (Jewish) law. 
But then, the marriage could only be consummated when the female spouse began her menstruation cycle, which typically only occurred between 12 and 12½ years of age. 
Once her reproducibility became evident, a wedding feast would be held – usually over a stretch of days – so that the clan could be informed. We remember this in John 2:1-12 when Jesus and His disciples went with His mother to Cana in Galilee for a similar event.
Such wedding feasts also served as a watermark to underline the point at which the husband and the wife could then consummate their marriage. 
And since Joseph would have likely gone home to take part in the annual ritual where ‘the family of David’ brought the wood offering of the priests to the Temple in Jerusalem on the twentieth day of the month of Tammuz (summer in the modern day calendar), much of the clan in his hometown would be aware of the changes to and in his life, not least his betrothal to Mary. 
And if that was the case, they would also know if there was or wasn’t a wedding feast held in their honour.
Sitting as still as possible on the donkey, Mary waited. And waited. And waited. And then she felt that familiar kick and a prod in her womb as if to remind her that time might not wait much longer now. But what could she do at this point in time? Joseph had been gone for a while now and there was no sight of him yet.
“We have not heard anything about any wedding feast for your betrothal. So how could you have consummated your marriage, Joseph?” one of his clan members asked.
From that alone, word would have fanned out very quickly. Even in ancient times, bad news travel as sensationally as it were like a brushfire. And in no time, the whole of Bethlehem was alert to the arrival of an adulterous young couple under the cover of night, looking for a place to lay over and the wife was about to give birth to an illegitimate child. 
Given the strict Jewish traditional custom, no family in their right mind would cede the use of their kataluma to them if they wanted to preserve and not defile their ritual purity.
But as it turned out, someone dug deep enough and found the compassion to allow Joseph and Mary to settle into a dark half-cave in the basement – they call it a grotto – where they were compelled to share their privacy with some livestock. 
More alarmingly (but often not talked about much) was the deep shame the young couple was meted out. In a culture that made such harsh judgemental statements, Joseph and Mary suffered indignity unbefitting of the birth of the Messiah.

The grotto
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An example of a grotto, this one was where Jesus regularly met up with His disciples (Image source: Lori Imsdahl)

In that ancient Judean period, the grotto is not much more than a basement enclosure that was roughly a single to a single-and-a-half in room size but in reality, it was just a carved out recess in the side of a hill, acting as a holding pen for the family’s animals. 
Visually, it would look like a scooped-out cavity from a gentle hill slope. In some ways, it would be similar in function to the ground floor of a typical inn of that era with the same stone floor or in today’s terms, a shallow but sparse cellar. 
Unlike the case of the inn where servant quarters might still be found, most Jews considered such a place unfit for human consumption. It was dark and dank. It was also windowless and when inside the grotto, there was no light to illuminate the surroundings. 
At about 4½ feet (slightly under 1.4 metres) in height, it was tall enough to shelter the animals but in this case, the occupants would need to constantly stoop or crouch just to move around. For someone like Mary in her physical state, that might mean getting on her hands and knees to crawl.
A feeding trough – called a ‘manger’ – dominated the floor area where the animals would feed from. This was usually either hewn out of a rectangular-shaped block of stone or shaped from straw-reinforced mud bricks. At times, there have been examples of similar troughs that were simple depressions in the stone floor. Besides that, there were usually piles of rocks strewn with a mix of dirt, straw and manure.
Another common feature of the grotto was the natural heating that came from the perspiring animals held inside. As the heat rose, it warmed the low ceiling, offering warmth and comfort to the guests sleeping above it. 
At least the occupants in the kataluma would remain well accommodated. Meanwhile Joseph and Mary would have to make do with a very pervasive stench of animal dung. Even so, that would have to do. The baby would have no choice but to be born under such humiliating conditions.

A missed opportunity
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One of two First Century homes discovered in the 1880s by nuns of the Sisters of Nazareth convent, some researchers today believe this one could be the home in which Joseph and Mary brought up Jesus (Image source: NBC News)

From heaven’s viewpoint, this was supposed to be a glorious event but to Joseph’s Davidic clan, the people saw nothing more than a couple and their scandalous adultery even after five difficult days of inhospitable travelling. 
Meanwhile no ‘decent’ Jew was willing to be besmirched. In fact, the status of Jesus’ ‘illegitimacy’ never really left Him and till today, there are still Jewish scholars who maintain the rejection thus denying His Messianic status, often referring to ‘evidence’ found in the Babylonian Talmud’s characterisation of Mary as one who “played harlot with carpenters.” 
But of course, no one in Bethlehem, much less the clan, would have known or understood the significance of the birth. They knew nothing of the coming of the Messiah that this baby would represent. While they would have known about the coming of the Messiah, they didn’t realise that it would take place in their little town. And in the end, much of the town missed the golden opportunity of witnessing and welcoming the birth of all births.
By now, the sun had long set and in its place, a bone-chilling night breeze amidst a moon-washed glow that reminded them of their stark physical settings. Joseph and Mary were both tired to the bone. They were also very hungry. Having been on the road literally the whole day, they had not expected to be treated this harshly let alone not having anything to eat. Joseph was simmering in anger at how they were manhandled.
Mary, on the other hand, was struggling with her labour. In fact, her labour pains were now coming faster. And sharper. Joseph noticed his wife grimacing as she held on to her stomach with one hand while she desperately tried to steer herself to lie down. 
Beads of sweat had now developed on her forehead. She seemed focused only on one thing and that was, to finally deliver her baby. That was when Joseph caught her looking at him with an expression of undoubted urgency.

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Born in a grotto (Image source: Kenneth Cope)

It is time, she gestured. Not a word needed to be spoken for it was evidently clear. Stunned at that instant, Joseph reacted like an expectant father, leaping into service though in reality, he was scared stiff and nervous but in an exciting sort of way. 
He was simply a complete bundle of messed-up nerves, all ready but never really ready. Not much help, perhaps, but with only him around, there wasn’t much of a choice for Mary as well. It was either him or the donkey.
But never mind all that. Even in pain, Mary knew what needed doing. Careful tutelage and precious lessons by her mother would now kick in. Joseph was now holding her hand and wiping the sweat off her forehead and brow. He patiently – but anxiously – waited until that moment arrived. 
And while he was doing that, seated on a bed of hay by Mary’s side, he couldn’t help but reflect back on how everything he had planned for their first child had ended like this when in fact, he would have had it differently if only the tax census didn’t occur.
But then, this wasn’t the pregnancy he had in mind. This one was different. And he couldn’t have had this one planned anyway. He wasn’t around for this one, now from the start, but he was now here at the finish… exactly backwards from the way he had preferred.

Alone in the manger
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Image source: The Telegraph UK

At a time when everyone else was either already fast asleep or getting ready to, there was one place left that was welcoming a new life into this world. From afar, in the quietness of a still and cold, lonely night, a young couple huddled in the warmth of a half-cave, shared by some animals in the stench of dung and sweat. To them was born a beautiful, healthy baby boy that was prophesied over the ages by patriarchs known throughout and spoken about by the Jewry.
Joseph held him up for Mary to see. And there he was, a tiny crying voice that pierced the stillness of the night.
“Let me hold him,” Mary said in her weak voice.
Joseph carefully handed the baby to his wife who wrapped him up in a swaddling cloth made from tearing a rough piece of cloth into strips, before she held him in her arms. There she laid in her own quiet moment, looking at the baby and awed by his presence, knowing what the angel Gabriel had told her (Lk 1:28-37). She was thankful that he looked healthy and unharmed.
In a world where two became three in a forgotten grotto in the middle of a cold wintry night, Mary exchanged loving looks with Joseph. In between them was their newborn child, foretold for ages, conceived beyond anyone’s logic and ignored by the Davidic clan in Bethlehem. 
But now, sleep and tiredness had begun to overcome the two. For all that she’d done to stay up and give birth, all the travelling and the stress had finally caught up and more than anything else, sleep was largely all she’d wanted at this point.
Looking around for somewhere suitable to place the baby, Mary realised that the grotto being the premise, the choices were as sparse as they were scarce. How could anywhere in such a place be ‘suitable’ for a newborn, let alone one that comes with the credentials that the angel Gabriel had said? Feedstock was strewn messily on one end of the half-cave where it was particularly filled with stench. On the other end, the animals were penned. In either case, there was nowhere safe where the baby could lay and sleep.
On one other side closer to where they laid was a feeding trough – a manger – that looked like their last and only resort. Even in such dim light, it was obvious that this was nothing more than an old, creaky and crudely constructed receptacle hewn from stone. A closer look at it didn’t prove any more inviting. 
In fact, Joseph and Mary saw bits of food scraps stuck to the base where the animals couldn’t get to. It wasn’t exactly clean but it was the only viable place. Looking anywhere else was next to impossible given how they were earlier treated.
Gently, Mary placed the baby in the manger and kissed him on the forehead. After that, both of them slumped onto the bed of hay, relieved that the most difficult part of everything they had to go through was now over. 
The day was long but at least, the baby was healthy. Although it would have been preferable that the child’s first night be in a soft and comfortable bed, they had to make do with what they were given.

A new beginning
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Mary holds her newborn Jesus while she and Joseph listen to the shepherds (Image source: JW)

As Mary laid down, gradually drifting into slumber, she was already wondering how life would change so dramatically for them from tomorrow onwards. Joseph, on the other hand, was still fairly wide awake. 
Despite the tiredness, it was the adrenalin that probably made him remain alert, at least for now. Eyes opened, he stared at the low ceiling of the half-cave. Even in darkness, he could still its rough, dirty and stained texture.
Anger over the maltreatment began to ebb the moment he turned to look at his wife sleeping by his side and then a longing glance at the baby alone in the manger. He realised how God had truly blessed him even at such a young age. 
Although tired beyond belief, He gave him a beautiful wife and then anointed her to conceive the baby and still remained a virgin. And then of course, the baby himself; surely the most glowingly beautiful he had ever laid eyes on.
How incredibly strange it all now felt, Joseph thought, that this night should end like this. As it actually turned out, the angel Gabriel was correct. Furthermore, he remembered the angel telling the both of them separately the baby’s name (Lk 1:31, Mt 1:21). Jesus, he remembered the name the angel mentioned. “And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Mt 1:21, NLT).
What made all this so surreal to him was that he was nothing but a mere carpenter and not exactly a very famous one at that either. Why him? Why not someone more prominent or upstanding? And Mary? Well, she’s certainly beautiful in my eyes, he thought, but she’s just an innocent teenage lass! 
Goodness gracious, the Lord sure works in amazing ways, I’d say! Joseph wondered to himself. And if he was struggling with all of these, he could imagine how others in his family would take to such news.
He remembered that in his dream, the angel had echoed:
Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” (Mt 1:23, NLT)
Verily so, the next day will be a brand new day for Joseph and Mary. And now, baby Jesus. Everything we all knew about life would change. Everything that man thought was headed nowhere would now find hope. Despair would give way to optimism. And beyond everything we could ever see, there was now a new word to learn that this baby born would promise us. Salvation.

What Christmas means today
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Image source: burrowdesigns.com

Much of the story told earlier is of course true although there’s some poetic licensing involved in the dialogue parts and besides there are still little details here and there that are open to conjecture such as the actual time of the birth of Jesus. In short, anything that cannot be confirmed biblically remains inadmissible and best used to invoke our imagery of the first Christmas in history.
Still, the birth of Jesus is true and it did take place some 2,000 years ago. As baby Jesus lies in the manger sleeping with the mother wondering what the future would be like and the father reflecting in amazement at the unfolding of the event, the Father was watching over it all. Below that grotto, He’s smiling joyously for His plans for our salvation had begun.
But over the next number of millennia, the meaning of Christmas has been tested and taken for granted. The way the significance of Christmas has been slowly being eroded and then gradually replaced by something as innocuous as it is politically correct and neutral has been going on for some time now. 
And as this process evolved, the spiritual aspects of Christmas began shifting ever so subtly until what we have today is nothing more than a simple holiday with holiday decorations and a holiday tree.
In fact by the time the Eighties rolled in, Christmas had already become a generic holiday with shopping, eating and revelry. Our society has turned Christmas into an end-of-year season of sales for businesses. It’s a great opportunity to clear stock and introduce new products to exploit holiday shoppers. Hollywood look to Christmas as a grand opportunity to launch movies and make box offices with holiday viewers around the world.
For millions of families, it’s about gilding the tree with decorative ornaments, stuffing the socks with gifts and having the usual photos taken at the mall with the mythical Santa. It’s all roast turkey, Christmas pudding, fruit cakes, meat pies and of course, if you’re in Australia, plenty of stubbies around the barbeque pit in the backyard by the pool. Since it’s summer there, it’s an outdoor affair in shorts or swimwear.
Elsewhere, Christmas is a good time for the family to go together for a holiday away from home. That means camping or caravanning. Those who are more adventurous get on their Harleys or Goldwings and cruise along the coastal roads and walk the beaches. 
Some others simply seize the chance for a good rest before the year is out, looking to recharge their batteries. For the insincere, it’s as good a time as any to get blind drunk and abusive, and then be a complete nuisance to others.

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Image source: Snippits and Snappits 
Not wanting to ‘offend’ has adversely affected the very meaning of Christmas. Unbelievers and atheists are having a field day accusing Christians of forcing unacceptable religious values down their throat simply by our visual imageries, carolling, even our Christmas greeting cards and trees. 
Here’s what Fenwick Department Store, an independent British chain of retail stores has to say about all this:
“Christmas is being stealthily and ruthlessly dismantled and replaced. We’ve all heard of Winterval, it’s the Politically Correct replacement of our traditional Christmas – an engineered replacement complete with polar bears, penguins, and snowflakes to eradicate our traditional nativity scenes, with baby Jesus, Joseph, Mary and the Three Wise Kings all to be airbrushed out.”
This is a sentiment that isn’t confined to the British. It is just as alarmingly bad in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. A journalist at the Dallas Morning News, Henry Tatum, wrote two days before Christmas in 1987, noting the following:
“Far more damaging to the religious foundations of Christmas are those who have subtly shifted the emphasis without ever making a public statement or going to court. They simply stopped using the word ‘Christmas’ in any reference to this time of (the) year. Instead, the word for the 1980s is ‘holiday.’ We now have a holiday season, holiday decorations and a holiday tree at City Hall. Christmas has become the ‘C’ word, a name we all know but feel uncomfortable mentioning in mixed company.”
How have we come to this point? What did we do to get here or more pertinently, what did we not do that made us all complicit? How did we end up reshaping a world to become so afraid of offending the minority that anything to do with Christmas must be obliterated so that all of us become more acceptable to unbelievers? 
Perhaps Henry’s damning remarks here force us into reflection:
“What is surprising is how passive those have been who profess to hold Christian beliefs. The shift in the message has been made so quietly and gradually that there wasn’t even a fight.
“One day, we had Christmas. The next, we had a holiday break.”

The real Christmas truths
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The elderly Simeon holds the baby Jesus while Anna the prophetess catches a glimpse from behind at the entrance to the temple in Jerusalem (Image source: JW)

Henry isn’t just right. What he’s also saying is that Christians have let slide past opportunities to hold on to the truths that define Christmas. We have slipped up very badly and now, we need to reaffirm our faith by retelling the story as it really happened. From the story told, remember these ten parts:
-        FACT ONE: Caesar Augustus was real
He was the ruler of the Roman Empire at that time and it was he who called for the tax census and it was to Quirinius that the instructions fell to carry them out in the province of Judea.
-        FACT TWO: From Nazareth, they travelled to Bethlehem
The journey took about five long days to complete. Joseph completed it on foot while Mary was perched atop a donkey. It was unimaginably difficult and dangerous especially for someone who was pregnant.
-        FACT THREE: Joseph and Mary’s journey wasn’t their decision
Rome didn’t really care if the Jews stayed where they were once the census took place but to the Jews, this was unacceptable. 
According to Jewish tradition, ancestral lineage was of far greater importance, which necessitated all Jews to have to make their way home just for that purpose, which was why Joseph and Mary had to make that trip.
-        FACT FOUR: Mary was certainly pregnant with child
The Bible documents this in the Gospels. It was foretold in the Old Testament that the Messiah will come. It was described by the angel Gabriel to Mary and then in a dream to Joseph. 
Both knew what they were to expect. And they were told that the baby was to be named Jesus for He will save the world from sin.
-        FACT FIVE: Joseph was headed for his hometown
Not only was he returning home, he was going to observe the world’s first Christmas with Mary, his wife. Both would be the first in the world to acknowledge the birth of Jesus, the inaugural Christmas Day.
-        FACT SIX: Joseph and Mary were shunned by his own clan
For though Bethlehem was Joseph’s home and much of his family would have returned for the tax census, traditional Jewish custom undermined their welcome as they were not afforded the comfort of a proper room in which Mary could give birth. 
All because the people saw in the two of them nothing but an adulterous couple.
-        FACT SEVEN: Bethlehem was indeed a small village
The six miles further up from Jerusalem might have been a thousand miles; such was the difference between the two. While Jerusalem was more like a metropolis, Bethlehem was nothing more than a small village with, arguably, no inn available for Joseph and Mary to lay over.
-        FACT EIGHT: It was a grotto and not an inn
There are plausible arguments that it wasn’t an inn that the Gospels were referring to. Exegetically, Luke was referring to a guestroom (kataluma) whereas a pandoxeion is in reference to an inn, not exactly the kind of place to bring a woman, much less one who was very pregnant, for a layover. 
Instead, Joseph and Mary were resigned to settle for something he didn’t bargain on their arrival in Bethlehem – a half-cave scooped from the slope of a hillside in which they shared space with domestic animals in dank conditions.
-        FACT NINE: Jesus wasn’t born in a choice location
It wasn’t either Joseph or Mary’s choice that Jesus would be born under such harsh conditions. They would’ve preferred a more comfortable setting – a room would be more private, safer, cleaner and superior in every conceivable way. 
Besides, no fit human would have taken up such a place. That they found themselves in a half-cave (grotto) was what they ended up with. The squalid conditions reflect the humbleness in which Jesus entered the world.
-        FACT TEN: Jesus spent His first night sleeping in a trough
Having been born in a half-cave was humbling enough but the Son of God was made to take His first sleep in a manger, which is a crude rectangular box in which livestock take their feed from. In other words, it wasn’t a very clean place. 
For Mary to decide that was where the baby had to sleep in must have had been a painful decision but there wasn’t any other option.

The remarkable route
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Despite the two route options shown above, I believe that Joseph and Mary took the one that travelled alongside the Jordan River (Image source: Constant Contact)

Keeping these ten pieces of truth intact and unadulterated is important because they underline facts that are neither legendary nor mythical. These are not fairy tales told on a holiday by the camp-side fire. Instead these form the genuine foundation of the Christmas story that has been told through the ages.
Never mind that we don’t know for sure the actual date and time of the birth of Jesus but the essential fundamentals of the Nativity story are more crucial because they tell us how Jesus’ birth really happened. They inform us how the Father took a remarkable route for His Son to enter the world, vested in the mission to save all of us mankind.
This remarkable route couldn’t possibly be how royalty treat the births of their offspring. It’s not something we’d expect the next King of England to have heeded in order that his children were born or for that matter, every other sovereignty in any part of the world. 
What we witnessed in the birth of Christ was completely unexpected. Totally shocking. Incredibly humbling. And most assuredly, an example no one would or could replicate.
Taking this remarkable route meant Jesus was destined to be born into poverty. He took on Jewish parentage where his human father was a humble carpenter. By being genealogically of the same lineage as King David, He fulfilled the prophecy of the patriarchs. 
He became part of a community of a largely forgotten village. And it’s easy to forget that He was descended from Heaven. There is nothing vague about any of this.  
This is reality that rests on solid historical fact. So, let us not be even the slightest bit doubtful about it. Christ was indeed born under all those circumstances. Whatever the drama that unfolded, they did (unfold). 
However painful and suffering it was for Mary to endure that whole journey, she did (endure). How demoralising and humiliating it was for Joseph to experience in the hands of his own clan in Bethlehem, he did (experience).
English hymnist and theologian Isaac Watts (1674-1748) wrote in his collection called ‘The Psalms of David,’ the following words:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.”
In what we now refer to as the Christmas carol ‘Joy to the World,’ Watts based his words on Psalm 98 and 96:11-12 as well as Genesis 3:17-18. Herein, he describes how heaven and earth rejoice at the coming of Christ the King. 
In the next stanza, he talks of Christ’s blessings extending victoriously over the realm of sin. The nations are called to join together and celebrate because God’s faithfulness to Israel has brought salvation to the world:
No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.”
In the other Christmas carol, ‘Adeste Fideles’ (‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’) are the following enduring lyrics in English written by English priest Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880) in 1841:
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant! O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem; come and behold Him born the King of Angels: O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”
Oakeley’s English lyrics draw us into the Nativity story in Luke 2:8-16 in which angels appeared before the shepherds and as they depart for heaven, the shepherds themselves became curious enough to go see for themselves what it is that has taken place, which the Lord has spoken of. 
This curiosity was of course impacted by the angels who appeared and then glorified God because of the birth of Christ the King, the Messiah, who now laid asleep in a manger in Bethlehem.
And so in a sense, we can all come together and reflect on the miracle of Jesus now in flesh appearing. We can come in worship, in adoration of Christ, once born in a grotto and lived on earth as a sign of God’s promise to us. Such is the truth of life that is impossible to ignore then as it is today. 
But know this: the birth of Jesus is true not because these hymns and carols tell us so, it is true not because we say it often enough or that we will ourselves to believe it, it is true not because our parents or pastors tell us so or that Hollywood produced a great movie about it. It is true because it really took place.
And by way of the remarkable route, the Father made it so.

The Lord has truly come
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Baby Jesus in the manger by Gerard van Honthorst (Image source: vice.com)

Remember the part of the story where Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem only to realise the rejection? The apostle John reminds us very poignantly in the Gospel:
He came into the very world He created, but the world didn’t recognise Him. He came to His own people and even they rejected Him.” (Jn 1:10-11, NLT)
The world wasn’t ready for Him then and it still isn’t ready for Him now. Jesus suffered the indignity of being ignored and rejected even before He was born let alone when He was doing the work of His Father in the years before He met His death. 
To be sure, the people didn’t even know who He was and still, they denied Him. But the clue in the following verse is important:
But to all who believed Him and accepted Him, He gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn – not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan but a birth that comes from God.” (Jn 1:12-13, NLT)
For here, Jesus came with a promise for those who did not ignore or reject or deny Him. To them, He offers the gift of Salvation and the right to live eternity by His side. His birth 2,000 years ago laid the foundation for all of this to take place; without which, none of us would have the worthiness of hope.
So, yes, Christ was truly born. It’s no fake news. It happened and you’d better believe it. So that’s the piece of Good News that we’ve been hearing for two millennia. It hadn’t changed. It will never change. And it’s here to stay.
Joy to the world, the Lord has truly come.
Merry Christmas, my friends.

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