That Night of Nights

Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. The search for a place where Jesus could be born in privacy and secret. The event that divides human history in two


“Now it happened that at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken in the whole inhabited world. This census–the first–took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to be registered, each to his own town” (Lk 2:1-3). These spare lines of Luke’s Gospel contain the information about Jesus’ date of birth, the historical circumstance in which the Eternal entered into time, taking on our human nature in every aspect except sin.
The senator Sulpicius Quirinius, whose name has been cited for two thousand years in the readings of the Christmas liturgy, was born in Lanuvius, near Tusculus, and had governed in Crete and Cyrene. The Roman historian Tacitus confirms that Quirinius was named consul in 12 B.C. and was governor of Syria as imperial legate. However, he sets the time of his tenure as governor in the years 6-7 A.D., which is some time after the birth of the Savior. In an attempt to resolve this discrepancy, some exegetes have tried to translate Luke’s words as, “This census took place before (the one that happened) while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” But a fragmentary inscription found in Tivoli at the end of the eighteenth century, according to Abbot Giuseppe Ricciotti (author of the Life of Jesus Christ
), offers a sufficient basis for stating that Quirinius had already been legate in Syria a few years before the common era, and that he had called a first census, which lasted for several years and was completed by his successor Sentius Saturninus. The registration of all the inhabitants of Palestine was carried out according to Jewish custom: all the people being counted had to register in the place of their origin and not in the territory where they lived, as would have been the case if the Roman census method had been adopted.
“So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee for Judaea, to David’s town called Bethlehem, since he was of David’s House and line, in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child” (Lk 2:4-5). The tribes of Israel were divided into large families and these families into Houses, and wherever they went to live, the new family groups tenaciously preserved the memory of their original line. Bethlehem (originally Beth-Lahamu, “House of the god Lahamu,” a Babylonian deity, later interpreted according to the Hebrew meaning of beth-lehem, “House of bread”) was a small town six miles from Jerusalem, and in Jesus’ time it probably had no more than 1,000 inhabitants, for the most part shepherds and farmers. It lay, however, on the caravan route from Jerusalem to Egypt, so that from ancient times the son of a friend of King David, Chamaam, had built there a caravanserai (in Hebrew, geruth, “inn”).

Traveling for the census

Bethlehem is about 100 miles from Nazareth, and Joseph and Mary’s journey must have taken at least three or four days. We do not know if the law required the wife to be present also, along with the head of the family. But Luke’s words give us to understand that her advanced pregnancy must in any case have made it prudent that the Savior’s mother not be left alone. And too, in announcing the coming of Jesus, the Annunciation Angel had foretold to Mary that “the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David,” and this was one more reason why the birth should take place in Bethlehem, the city that the prophet Micah had indicated in the Scriptures as the homeland of the Messiah of Israel. We can imagine that the roads were in fairly bad condition and were crowded with families on the move because of the census. In the best of hypotheses–Ricciotti observes–Mary and Joseph would have had an ass, laden with the food and utensils necessary for the trip–a trip that must not have been easy for Mary, who was close to giving birth. The three or four nights spent on the road would have been passed in the houses of friends or, more probably, in public stopping places, out in the open, side-by-side with other travelers, their asses, and their camels.
Once they reached Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph found the city of David overflowing with people. The caravanserai, too, the traditional place for travelers to stay, was overcrowded. “Now it happened that, while they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the living-space” (Lk 2:6-7). The living-space (to kataluma in the Greek used by Luke) was nothing more than the caravanserai: a roofless space surrounded by a rather high wall. Inside, around the courtyard, ran a portico that offered shelter and was in part enclosed by low walls. Thus little “rooms” were created, reserved for those who could afford to pay to have greater privacy. The evangelist notes that “there was no room for them in the living-space.” According to Abbot Ricciotti, this phrase is a more studied one than first meets the eye. It is difficult to imagine that in the caravanserai or in all of Bethlehem there was not some corner where the couple could stay. This “for them” could indicate, however, that in those days and in that situation, with the overcrowding and the total lack of privacy that reigned in the public places and the poor dwellings of Bethlehem, what was not to be found was a place where Mary could give birth to Jesus in intimacy and secret. Luke limits himself to writing that Mary “gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” The manger presupposes a stable, and the stables in David’s poor city were small caves dug out of the rock near the houses or in the hills around Bethlehem.

The humble birth of a new sovereign

Joseph and Mary settled down the best they could in one of these dark caves next to some animal. The evangelist’s words lead us to understand that the birth took place without the help of any other persons. The mother herself took care of her Baby, wrapping Him in swaddling clothes and laying Him in the manger, where Joseph, who is not even mentioned, would surely have put some clean straw. “The text infers an easy birth which went smoothly,” writes René Laurentin in his Authentic Life of Jesus Christ. The mention of her “first-born son” should not deceive us into thinking that the Virgin had other children: “first-born son” (in Hebrew bekor) is a technical term of particular legal significance, because Jewish first-born sons had to be presented in the Temple, a circumstance that Luke describes in later chapters.
So the Messiah of Israel comes into the world in the half-darkness of an isolated cave dug out of the rock. He is a very different sovereign from Herod, who was reigning over Jerusalem surrounded by luxury in his golden palace. But that defenseless Baby, that king of Israel born in such humble circumstances, also received the homage of his earliest “courtiers.” These subjects of his were of the same social class as King David himself, who had once been a shepherd. Bethlehem was then and is now on the edge of a vast plain. While it is true that many sheep were brought into the caves at night, it is equally true that many flocks stayed outside all the time, day and night, summer and winter. Groups of men watched over them and lived with them all this time. “Shepherds of this type,” Ricciotti writes, “had a very low reputation among the Pharisees and Scribes. Firstly, their nomadic life on the plain where water was scarce made them dirty and smelly, ignorant of all the most basic laws about washing hands, clean dishes, carefully chosen food. More than anyone else, they were that ‘people of the earth’ whom the Pharisees thought worthy of the greatest disdain; and too, they were all considered to be thieves, and people were advised not to buy from them milk or wool which could have been stolen goods.”

The baby in swaddling clothes

“In the countryside close by there were shepherds out in the fields keeping guard over their sheep during the watches of the night. An angel of the Lord stood over them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, but the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid. Look, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ And all at once with the angel there was a great throng of the hosts of heaven, praising God with the words: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those he favors.’ Now it happened that when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child they repeated what they had been told about him, and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds said to them. As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2:8-19). The Most High made flesh, the event (Luke uses the term rhema, which echoes the Hebrew dabar and has the dual meaning of “word” and “event”) that divides human history in two, the Messiah so long awaited by the faithful people of Israel, manifests Himself first to the “dirty and smelly” shepherds, the descendants of that shepherd king who was David. This is the unfathomable method of God, so different and so distant from any human imagining: the infinitely great embraces the infinitely small. Informed by the angel, the shepherds rush to the cave. “Being poor in financial terms but lords of the spirit,” Ricciotti points out, “they ask nothing, and return without further ado to their sheep, only, they felt a great need to praise God and to let others in that area know what had happened.” They would have laid at the feet of the newborn some wool and some milk–just those products that the Pharisees considered stolen goods.