Once upon a time, a child was born in Bethlehem, a little Palestinian town six miles south of Jerusalem. Because of circumstances surrounding His birth he was born in a stable right along side cows, camels, sheep, and an array of stray cats and dogs.
Now I may not have all the details exact, but my version of the story goes like this:
The Roman government was forcing everyone to register for taxation at the courthouse in their hometown. The timing was terrible because the mom, Mary, was pregnant with the child—very pregnant, in fact. Already in her ninth month, she rode side-saddle, over sixty miles, on a burrow from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Her husband, Joseph, walked beside her most of the way, praying that somehow they would make it there and back home before the baby came. But wouldn’t you know it, they didn’t.
Immediately after they registered at the tax collector’s office, Mary felt faint, then a pain. Wrapping her arms around her swollen belly, she looked at Joseph and he looked back with that “Oh, no!” look. They both turned whitened-pale, Joseph more than Mary. In a split second, time stopped and they knew—“this was it.”
No mid-wife. No sufficient clothing. No blankets. Not even a place to lie down. They were going to have a baby in spite of dismal circumstances.
As careful as he could, without jiggling Mary off the burrow, Joseph pulled on the bridle and quickly headed for the local hotel. When he saw the hotel sign in the distance he sickened. Bold, neon letters read, “NO VACANCY.”
“Maybe they had a side room or perhaps the desk clerk forgot to turn off the sign after someone checked out.” Joseph encouraged himself with these thoughts.
Parking the burrow, Joseph rushed in and found the hotel staff in a frenzy. He had never witnessed such chaos. People bumping into each other, kids running wild, baggage buggies blocked every hallway.
“Sir…sir!” Joseph tried to get the attention of the manager. Finally, he acknowledged Joseph.
The manager could tell Joseph was anxious. The quiver in his voice matched the look on his face. “My wife is pregnant and going into labor right now. Can you give us a room? We’ll take anything. We’re desperate!”
“Everyone is desperate today!” he snapped. “I’m sorry. Until this tax registration is over, I’m booked.”
“But sir,” Joseph begged. “My wife is dilating and practically giving birth to our child as we speak!”
All day long the manager had heard desperate stories. He had to admit, this was a first. But, it did grab his heart. And he could tell Joseph was not exaggerating.
The manager glanced down the hallway. Spotting one of his staff he yelled, “Radi! Come ‘ere!” A thirty-something man, neatly dressed with the hotel logo on his pocket, walked over to him.
Looking back to Joseph he said, “Radi will take you to the stable out back. It’s all I’ve got. It’s half the price of a room.”
“That’s better than nothing.” Joseph was disappointed, but grateful.
The mystery builds from this point.
Radi leads them to a cave dug into the hillside out back of the hotel. Basically, this was the hotel’s “animal garage,” where the tenants kept their critters during their stay. Air circulation was poor in the hillside stable…so imagine the stench!
In no time, the baby was delivered. This was not mysterious. But what followed was.
A highly unusual peace settled over Joseph and Mary. It was like a “Presence” or something. It was as if this cave-stable became a five-star suite. The smell that knocked them down in the beginning disappeared and the sweet aroma of roses filled the earthen room!
This cave took on the feel of a palace, a place of royalty. The luxury rooms in the hotel could not have been more lavish. It looked like a cave, but felt like a castle. The mystery continued.
During the delivery Joseph and Mary were alone—and yet, they weren’t. A strange feeling, it was. Singing filled the surroundings. At first, Joseph thought it was coming from a band in the hotel lobby. He checked. It wasn’t. It was evident—even the animals were aware of it.
After baby was born, the strange occurrences intensified a thousand times!
Joseph scurried to find a place to lay the newborn. Being a carpenter, he noticed an empty box used to feed the cattle. They called it a manger, but it was just an old wooden box that held feed.
He filled it with hay gathered from a cattle stall, and over the hay he placed a few rags he found hanging on an old nail. Then, he laid the baby in it. Sounds crude, I know, but it’s all they had.
You couldn’t argue with it, this baby was indeed, “different.” And no wonder, before Mary became pregnant (which is in itself a mystery hard to believe), a guy named Gabriel visited her while she was doing house work. He said, “You will conceive and bring forth a son,” and “He will be great.” He said further, “God will give Him the throne of David.” It was Gabriel’s way of saying, “He’s a King.”
Unusual as it may seem, both Mary and Joseph felt allured to kneel before their infant son. Especially, Mary. More than anyone, she KNEW the baby was a King. Joseph was pretty sure, but Mary KNEW. Her pregnancy was a “God-thing,” of that she was certain.
In the wee hours of the morning the animals began to stir. Someone was approaching the cave. Joseph thought, “Probably Radi. The manager has sent him to check on us.”
Instead, they looked to see a group of shepherds. Three older men and two younger. All of them looked expectantly puzzled.
They looked to Joseph and said, “We’re not sure we’re at the right place…and not completely sure why we’re here.”
They continued, “This may sound bizarre, but angel-like people appeared to us, singing praises to the God of Israel, telling us to come to Bethlehem where we would find a baby wrapped in rags lying in a feeding trough.” They concluded, “They told us He is the Christ—the Anointed One.”
From where she lay beside the baby, Mary overheard them. “Joe, let them come in. I think they should be here.”
What those grubby men did next was one for the record books. These roughneck sheepherders, old and young, slowly approached the old feeding box where the child lay. Looking down at Him, they spontaneously burst into tears, bowed on their knees and began singing a song of worship.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” It sounded like something written in heaven. Joseph wondered where they had heard such a song.
Provoked by the shepherds, Mary and Joseph did what they had been feeling in their heart to do for hours. They joined in the shepherd’s song. Whether they were worshipping the baby, or the God of the baby, was hard for them to distinguish. One thing they were sure of, they had never experienced the unrestrained worship like poured from their soul that night.
Their Jewish minds opposed what they were doing, lest they become guilty of idol worship. Yet, it just seemed right. The baby from Mary’s womb so emanated the Presence of God that one could not help but worship.
Tradition gave way to their heart. With the shepherds, Mary and Joseph bowed before the baby in the box.
The mystery of this child continued. Two years later, wealthy men donning expensive gifts traveled hundreds of miles to worship Him. Later, a king named Herod tried to kill the child, but that only incited the mystery that much more.
When the child was grown, He healed the broken, loved the rejected, restored the fallen, raised the dead…and one of His followers said, “He did so many good things that it’s impossible to record all of them.”
Finally, when He was thirty-three years old, religious people had Him killed. But word got around that He came back to life again. People actually talked to Him after His resurrection! And this just adds to the mystery.
Today, many of those who follow Him still have a “cave experience” of their own. You will know them because they are oblivious to their surroundings and circumstances. Aroused by the same mysterious “Presence,” they worship God with the same abandon as did the shepherds, Mary and Joseph on that holy night.
The mystery of Christmas began with a baby in a box, and prophets say it will end with Him on a throne.
The details of this story are my own, and with the exception of a few fine points, they’re pretty close to the original.