Caesar Augustus’ census (Lk 2:1) was the catalyst that fulfilled Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2). And, in Jesus of Nazareth—The Infancy Narratives, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI highlights various links between Jesus and Caesar.
An inscription at Priene, Turkey, an ancient site of pagan temples, eulogises the birth of Caesar Augustus in terms that could well be used of Christ: “Providence (sent) him as a Saviour both for us and our descendants… The birthday of the god was the beginning of the good tidings that he brought for the world.”
He points out that the census occurred, truly, in the fullness of time (Gal 4: 4–5), given that the Roman Empire had created “a commonality of law and property on a large scale” and introduced a “universal language” which made possible “trade in ideas and goods”.
“Only now can a message of universal salvation, a universal Saviour, enter the world,” he said.
Bethlehem—Hebrew for ‘House of Bread’—lay 90 miles south-east of Nazareth, within the territory assigned to the tribe of Judah 1,200 years earlier. Set 2,700 feet above sea level, that final ascent may have been the hardest for exhausted travellers converging upon the town’s 500 inhabitants.
An article in the Theological Review of The Near East School of Theology (November 1979), says that Bethlehem was not likely to have had an inn, since it was not a trade centre, nor was it near an important trade route. As a returning native, therefore, it was likelier that a relative would have hosted Joseph and Mary.
Peasant homes were single-room, split-level spaces, often with a guest room attached. If that were already occupied, Mary and Joseph would have stayed in the family room with their hosts and animals. These were typically brought indoors to avoid their being stolen, and they also added warmth to the home in winter. The family occupied a kind of raised terrace, with the animals’ manger fixed at the edge of this, or on the wall or floor.
So, like countless peasant babies before him, Jesus was laid in a manger. It is not surprising, then, that it is the poor and outcast—those dearest to God’s heart—who are first called to see the newborn Christ (Lk 2: 8), namely, the shepherds who were close by.
Notorious for petty crime, shepherds were true outcasts. They were itinerant, ritually unclean and considered unfit for testifying in court. Their occupation of guarding their sheep, however, echoes an ancient monastic trait, says Pope Benedict: watchfulness. Because they were alert, they received the angel’s tidings of great joy, and witnessed the heavenly hosts filling the skies, glorifying God in song.
For the Saviour of the world was born. And this, says Pope Benedict, “is truly a reason for joy: there is truth, there is goodness, there is beauty. It is there—in God—indestructibly.”
Laura Ann Phillips is a writer, former missionary and a lover of the Word of God. A past Vision editor, she has been a Catholic News contributor for over 20 years.