The spiritual and sentimental Christmas overtake alleged actuality when the enormity of the real feast is upon us. We now see Christmas through the prism of truth. Through the eyes of a child, writes Tom McParland.
Three is the Biblical number representing perfection. God’s attributes are three: omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. In the Old Testament on the third day the earth rose from the water. In the New, Baby Jesus was visited by three wise men etc.
We, although being far from perfect, have three Christmases. A spiritual one, a sentimental one and an actual one. But like most things human, these run separately or commingled with the others. Perhaps that’s why we sing the line We Wish You A Merry Christmas three times.
Any story that starts with Mary and Joseph having to travel 90 miles on a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and ends with gold, frankincense and myrrh has an undying grandeur about it.
But Mark and Luke only gave us the spiritual bones of a story that began with two people becoming three then three wise men bringing three gifts. The absence of intervening practicalities we’ve been filling in ever since, construing the extraneous circumstances from what we know.
To our modern generation the fact that Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem by donkey usually evinces the kind of empathy we reserve for poor people. But bearing in mind the length of the journey – 90-miles – at best a 12-day one, the likelihood is that the Nazareth donkey they started out with wasn’t the same as the Bethlehem one they arrived with.
There were obviously pre-existing Hertz rent-a-donkey facilities en route. Joseph too must have been solvent enough to absorb those travel costs.
Despite the ultimately auspicious nature of the journey, Joseph did not intend Mary to have her Baby in a stable. Then Bethlehem houses had two levels, the upper mezzanine level where people slept, and the lower one where families lived during the day and the animals occupied at night. The nocturnal body heat from the animals kept the upper floor warm.
A guest room was often a separated area in the upper mezzanine level or sometimes a hut placed on the flat roof of the house. It was these that were full when Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. The inn where there was no room, didn’t exist. More probably Joseph had to pay to share the lower portion of a house that contained animals.
Mary and Joseph’s inhospitable situation is memorialised by the Irish and subsequent U.S. traditions of placing a candle in the window to show the Holy Family they are welcome. This tradition originally evolved from Penal days when the candle meant ‘a safe house’ for priests to say mass. So, what brought the Holy Family to Bethlehem in the first place?
It’s surely stretching things a tad to imagine that an order issued by Caesar Augustus in Rome 1,434 miles away was caused through a Divine Ordinance culminating in Baby Jesus being born in Bethlehem.
Mary and Joseph’s arrival there was no more celestial than the first ever Roman census ordered by Emperor Caesar Augustus to determine that every citizen paid his correct taxes. Joseph was a taxpaying carpenter. He naturally wanted to pay his share – or, as Jesus would say later – to give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.