Another day, just like all the others?

The Annunciation to the Shepherds: Benjamin-Gerritsz. Cuyp


What seems most surprising, in retrospect, is just how much like any other day that Christmas Eve must have seemed. Pressed against the very hinge of history – that moment when the King of Heaven would burst into the world as a helpless human infant – nearly the entire rest of humanity was going about its business, just as it had the day before and as it expected to do the very next day.

In Bethlehem and throughout the cities under the control of Caesar Augustus, the people were returning to their homes to be counted in the census. Perhaps some were frustrated to have been called away from their regular work for this event, and maybe some were eager to get back about their business. But there were also children playing along the road to Bethlehem, and surely there were joyful family reunions where grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters were excited to see each other again after long periods of separation.

In the markets, business was brisk. Tables would need to be set, food would need to be prepared, and housewives would be cleaning for the out-of-town guests expected to arrive in the days to come. Listen to the sounds: vendors call to passersby, children laugh, husbands mutter about the chores they’ve been assigned; goats and cattle chuckle and moo, stray dogs bark as they skitter away from the travelers, and donkeys bray as they are urged along the rocky paths.

And up on the hills outside of town, the bleating of sheep echoes among the rocks as they are tended, as on every other day, by the shepherds.

At a little Bethlehem inn, we hear the sound of a door closing as a young couple is turned away. Instead of a warm bed and a clean room in which to deliver the baby that soon would come, the couple settled for space among the animals. A feeding trough would be the first place their baby would lay His head.

But on this Christmas Eve — at least for now — there was just Mary and Joseph and the labor pains that women have known since the days of Eve. Was Joseph a squeamish father? Was he able to draw on the experience of having seen female family members give birth when he was younger? Did he cut the umbilical cord and place this tiny baby in the arms of His mother? These things are impossible to know, but we can assume that this birth was in most respects the same as billions before and billions after.

Except for the birth announcements.

Despite the humble circumstances of the actual delivery, no birth in history — before or after — took place amid such a display of glory. Angels had spoken separately to Mary and Joseph and had told them about the miracle that was to come. While the labor pains overtook her, did Mary recall those words: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” (Luke 1:31-33 NASB) As he watched his wife suffer through the pain of childbirth, did Joseph remember that he’d been told this: “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21)

How odd it must have seemed to them that this helpless babe would have the power to save people from their sins. What a great contrast there must have been between the angels’ pronouncements and the child they wrapped in swaddling cloths and lay in the manger.

And still, the day was, in so many ways, just like all the others.

On that first Christmas Eve, as Mary and Joseph delivered the child who would deliver His people, the shepherds in the hills around Bethlehem had no reason to expect anything but another long night of protecting their flock, just as they had done the night before that and the night before that and ….

But the arrival of a king should not go unannounced, and the Father in Heaven had prepared the greatest birth announcement of all time to herald the coming of this King:

“And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” (Luke 2:10-11)

The arrival of a king also demands a fanfare, which was provided by the whole heavenly host, singing “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:14)

And suddenly, this was a day unlike any other the shepherds had ever known. Suddenly this was a day that would mark a turning point in history. God had become flesh. The eternal and omnipotent God had become a mortal and helpless baby. The shepherds were amazed and hurried to find the child, and, seeing him, they left to tell the others in town what they had seen.

And somewhere inside the inn, the guests were asleep, and the innkeeper prepared the place for the next day, which, he said to himself, would be just like all the others.

Merry Christmas, and God bless.

Res Spears

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