While I unpacked Christmas decorations last year, I found a stranger in a terra cotta nativity set. Tucked away with the familiar characters and tiny animals was a figure of a little girl, kneeling. How did she get here? I wondered.
I laid the little girl aside as I began to arrange the other characters. The question stayed with me, though. Because I knew the Christmas story inside and out, it always seemed inevitable, but in some ways it's just strange. How did such an odd assemblage of people get to Bethlehem that night so long ago? And what do their stories tell us about the way God works?
The family way
Luke 2 tells us that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus told them to. Caesar wanted to know how many taxpayers and potential soldiers he had at his command, and the best way to count them all was to herd them into their ancestral hometowns. It was easier than sending census-takers to every corner of the empire.
Even though Luke doesn't tell us if Mary rode a donkey, or if it was cold, or if the couple traveled alone, Luke's account says a lot about Mary and Joseph. They headed to Bethlehem because they belonged to the line of David—the royal line. All Israelites knew about David's great kingdom and God's promise to restore it one day. Oppressed by the Romans and gossiped about by their neighbors, Mary and Joseph still could hold their heads high. They carried the honor of their family.
Luke also tells us that the couple completed their trip. They obeyed an order, even though it came at a terrible time for them. They planned ahead and spent whatever it took to get the very pregnant Mary to Bethlehem safe and sound. Their parents must have trained them up to be godly and responsible.
My parents trained me up that way, too. I've never been to Bethlehem, but I know about Bethlehem and why it's so important because they told me. As a very young child, in 1979, I prayed to become a Christian. I was blessed to be part of a family of faith.
My story of coming to Christ doesn't take long to tell and doesn't have any exciting details. I appreciate the fact that Mary and Joseph's story of getting to Bethlehem, at least the way Luke tells it, doesn't have any exciting details, either. God doesn't shock everyone on the road like He did Saul. Some of His children get an early nudge in the right direction.
Shepherds were the next people to arrive at the stable in Bethlehem. They had been out in the field, minding their business, when creatures like none they'd seen before delivered a crazy message. The Lord wanted them—a bunch of no-name shepherds—to know that there was a baby in a manger somewhere who was going to save Israel? This they had to see.
We can assume that the shepherds were locals, steady enough to hold a job but of no particular property or status. We don't know how many there were or what happened to their sheep when they ran off in the night. But, again, Luke tells us more than immediately meets the eye.
First, these shepherds had open hearts and minds. Israel had been waiting for the Messiah for so long that some Israelites had given up hope. These people couldn't bring themselves to believe even after Jesus told them who He was and performed miracles before their eyes. The shepherds, by contrast, followed their optimistic curiosity to a barn and apparently accepted the unusual sight they found there. They lost no time in spreading the word to others.
Second, the shepherds had their priorities straight. They dropped everything to check out the angels' story. They could lose their livelihoods or, if they worked for an especially harsh master, their very lives for such an impulsive act, but as far as we know they didn't even hesitate. Finding out the truth about the Christ mattered more than anything.
An angel has never visited my mother, but she did hear about Jesus from friends. Her parents, both alcoholics, didn't go to church or offer any spiritual guidance. She might never have become a Christian if it weren't for the minister who led the youth group she stumbled into as a middle-schooler.
Curiosity and courage led my mother to a commitment that would, in some ways, permanently distance her from the rest of her family.
In Mom's case, God worked through intermediaries—the person who invited her to youth group, the students who helped her feel welcome, and the pastor who shared the gospel. God doesn't always send angels, but He always blesses the proclamation of His message.
Magi were the last to arrive in Bethlehem. According to Matthew's account, they might have shown up as late as two years after Jesus' birth. And that's about all the information Matthew gives us.
Were the Magi kings or wise men? Did they travel as a trio? Where did they come from? Did they take the religion of Christ back with them? Nobody knows. Whoever they were, though, they possessed a few important character traits.
As "Wise Men Still Seek Him" bumper stickers remind us, the Magi were archetypal seekers. They used their intellects and the best information available to discover the truth about the universe. They dedicated their lives to the quest for knowledge.
The Magi didn't just conduct research in a laboratory, however. They displayed none of the academic detachment so highly prized today. When all the signs pointed toward something momentous in Bethlehem, they made the long trek to investigate. And when they got there, they didn't take notes, stroke their beards, and rush back to publish their findings. They worshiped. Their hearts followed their heads.
My father also found Jesus at the end of an intellectual journey. As a college student in the early 1970s, he was surrounded by competing life philosophies. But he wasn't the type to dabble or go with the flow. He decided to read up on various religions and evaluate their claims before choosing one to follow.
Eventually he came to a chasm his mind couldn't cross by itself. Christianity made a lot of sense, but no book could tell him if God really existed. So Dad asked. Alone in his room one night, he prayed, "God, if You're real, show me now." God came through, bright and clear as a star in the sky.
Echoes of grace
The figures in my nativity set were drawn to Bethlehem for different reasons, but God compelled them all. He guided David's family for hundreds of years, finally entrusting the promised king to the care of Mary and Joseph. He spoke to shepherds in the song of angels. He captured the imaginations of Magi with celestial pyrotechnics.
God guided my family, too. Our testimonies display different aspects of His work, but they echo each other. They also echo the story that started it all, the story of Christmas.
I ultimately decided to let the little girl in my nativity set stay. The sculptor who crafted her to match the other characters might have been trying to tell me something. How does a stranger get to Bethlehem? However God leads.
Elesha Coffman is a senior editor of Christian History & Biography and a doctoral student at Duke University.
- Think about your own journey to "Bethlehem." Was it more like that of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, or the Magi?
- Take a close look at Luke 2 and Matthew 1 and 2f, then talk about some of the unusual details that you ordinarily miss about the Christmas story.
- What traditions do you have in your celebration of Christmas that keep you in touch with the true meaning of Jesus' birth?
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