Mary remained with Elizabeth for three months. It was natural she should stay with her a considerable time. The occasion was not one of ordinary visitation. Mary and Elizabeth were relatives; but it was not the interest or the claims of relationship that brought them together as we have seen. They had been apprised of the stirring and stupendous fact that the hour had arrived for the incipient commencement of that manifestation of the glory of God to Israel, and the whole earth, which had been for so long a time the expectation of the nation; and that they two were to be used in the work. It was this that brought Mary "in haste" from Nazareth to the hill country in the neighbourhood of Hebron; and it was this that led her to stay a much longer time than ordinary circumstances would have suggested. It would naturally be the theme of much interested communication between the two; and as they busily plied the needle together in the preparations inseparable from the prospect before them, the time would go swiftly by.
At the end of the three months, John was born. Mary left her cousin just before or after that event. It is more probable she would stay to see it over than come away just before. At all events, close upon the time, she returned to Nazareth, to prepare for her own coming experience. The narrative of events relating to Mary and Jesus from this time onwards to the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan, is very meagre. There is no cause for much regret about this. The facts important to be known (those glanced at in the previous chapter) are clearly and amply set forth. The domestic incidents coming after would be interesting; but they are by no means essential, and perhaps might even hinder the right apprehension of the divine aim and intent in the work of Christ of which the early domestic phase was but the necessary preparation. We know enough, however, to sufficiently complete the picture. The materials jointly furnished by Matthew and Luke enable us to fill in with tolerable fulness the gap that would otherwise exist between Mary's return to Nazareth and John's advent on the banks of the Jordan. Their narratives are usually imagined to be discrepant. They seem so to unfriendly readers, and perhaps to some that are not unfriendly. But they are not really discrepant. They are at the most but variant. They exhibit different aspects of the same matter. While coinciding in the main points, they supply incidents omitted by each other, and thus appear to tell a different story, while they are but telling different parts of the same story. Those different parts admit of each other. They appear to exclude each other only on one point, viz.: as to where Joseph and Mary went with the new-born Messiah after their visit with him to Jerusalem to perform the circumcision -- whether to Egypt or to Nazareth. But this also will be found capable of such a suggested adjustment as to admit of the implicit reception of both accounts without any alteration. The joint narrative shows the following sequence of events.
Mary, though unmarried, was under espousal to Joseph, her future husband. We are not informed whether she had made him acquainted with the angel's communication to her on the subject of the coming birth of the Messiah. It is possible that maidenly modesty imposed on her an entire reserve with reference to the subject. If this were not so -- if she frankly explained to him what had taken place, then Joseph did not and could not believe her, but attributed her condition to the only cause he could recognise. It was the occasion of extreme embarrassment and dismay to both Joseph and Mary. Joseph was "a just man;" he could not pass over the serious breach of behaviour that had evidently occurred. At the same time, his love inspired pity. If he must part with his intended wife, he would do it "privily." He was "not willing to make her a public example" (Matt. i. 19). Her whole previous character would prompt him to spare her as much as possible. "While he thought on these things," and while probably both he and Mary were deeply suffering from the peculiar situation, they were relieved of their distress in the only way possible in the circumstances. "The angel of the Lord appeared unto Joseph in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." This intimation would not only end a painful dilemma: it would serve also to strengthen the foundation upon which the knowledge of the divine sonship of Jesus rested: for now, not only Mary, but Joseph also, was made aware of the fact on the testimony of God, and no room was left for human tradition, or for a merely humanly-acquired conviction on a subject so all-important. Joseph thus enlightened and delivered from what must have been an almost killing embarrassment, "did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife, and knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son."
How long they kept loving company thus at Nazareth, is not exactly apparent. It would be several months. What is specially interesting is this, that whereas it was written in the prophets, that Christ would "come out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was" (Jno. vii. 42; Micah v. 2), here was a position of affairs that seemed to make it certain that Jesus would be born at Nazareth, and would thus be lacking the initial proof of the Messiahship. It would have been difficult at the moment to suggest how this was to be prevented. The Providence of God was at hand to prevent the threatened miscarriage. A decree was promulgated from Rome, ordering the enrolment of the population of the empire with a view to taxation. This decree took every Jew for the time being to his ancestral home. "All went to be enrolled, every one into his own city." It thus took Joseph to Bethlehem, where lay the hereditary family connection with the soil, and where therefore, his enrolment would have to be effected. It took Mary there also, which is one of the proofs of Mary's Davidic extraction: for had she been of another house than the house of David, there would have been no need for her to go to Bethlehem, "the city of David;" and had it been unnecessary for her to attend for the purposes of the enrolment, it is inconceivable that Joseph would have subjected her to the fatigues of Syrian travel at almost the last stage of pregnancy. He would have gone alone, leaving Mary in the quietude and repose of Nazareth, exerting himself for an expeditious accomplishment of the enrolment business at Bethlehem, and a quick return to Nazareth. But he took her "to be taxed (enrolled) with" him in "the city of David which is called Bethlehem" (Luke ii. 4, 5). He took her because it was necessary for her to go, for she also was of the house and lineage of David; and thus compliance with a legal necessity of human origin for her presence at Bethlehem at that particular time, was the providential means of bringing about conformity with that higher necessity, that the Son of God and son of David should be born at Bethlehem.
It is worth while pausing to consider this peculiar combination of circumstances. Manifestly, it was a triumph of divine supervision that secured, by the operation of natural circumstances, the presence of Mary at Bethlehem at just the short particular period during which Christ should be born in the city of David, his human ancestor. But it might seem to a certain view of the case as if it would have been a more complete and natural realisation of the divine purpose on this point if Mary had been a resident of Bethlehem, instead of a visitor; and under no need to be regulated so as to secure the right birthplace for her son. It might plausibly be argued that such an arrangement would also have been much more likely to secure attention afterwards for Jesus, at the hands of the nation, than one that threw a veil over his Bethlehem parentage, associating him with Nazareth, and thus preventing the easy recognition of the fulfilment in him of the prophecy that Christ should be born at Bethlehem. No doubt the residence of Mary in Bethlehem would have been effectual on these two points: but then, other points would have been interfered with. In our last chapter, we were able to recognise the need for Jesus being insulated from all human prestige -- Jewish or Gentile. He was to be rejected of the nation: and his work was to stand upon a divine basis purely -- which two things necessitated his association with an obscure Galilean village, of which no one had a good opinion. In view of this, we can see why Jesus should not be known in his lifetime in connection with the royal city. At the same time, it was a prophetic necessity he should be born there. It is here where the providential circumstance we have looked at, appears in its true character of consummate wisdom. By a public incident, which had no apparent connection with the purpose of God, the mother of Jesus was brought to Bethlehem at the right moment for the birth of Jesus, without ceasing her connection with that other city, which had been chosen as the sphere of the Lord's mortal life till thirty years of age.
When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, "there was no room for them in the inn." We need not stay to dilate on the difference between a modern "Inn," and the institution at Bethlehem designated by that name in the English version. The difference would be great in mechanical particulars; but nothing turns on that as regards the significance of the narrative. Suffice it that the inn patronised by Joseph and Mary Would be a place of public accommodation like the modern caravanserai of the east, in which the housing and providing of asses, horses and camels, is quite as prominent a feature as the lodging of travellers -- a place, therefore, in which there would be very little of the comforts to which the travelling public of the nineteenth century are accustomed. But even such comforts as it had, were not accessible to Joseph and Mary. The place was full. Many people had arrived for the purposes of the enrolment from various parts of the country before Joseph and Mary, and all the places were taken: "there was no room for them in the inn." There does not appear to have been room anywhere else. Bethlehem was "their own city." Presumably, they might have friends and acquaintances in the place. If they had, they did not use their hospitality. Probably, the private houses would be full as well as the "inn;" and Joseph found himself very nearly in the position of the "way-faring man" from that very place about 1,400 years before, who arriving on his travels late at Gibeah of Benjamin, not far from Bethlehem, "sat him down in a street of the city: for there was no man that took him into his house to lodge," though there was both straw and provender for the asses, and bread and wine for himself, and his wife, and man-servant who were with him. Joseph had probably straw and provender for the asses: bread and wine for his little company: but "there was no room for them in the inn." What was to be done? They had to accept the best accommodation they could get under the circumstances. There was an unoccupied corner in the yard or enclosure where the camels and asses were stalled for the night. It was usual for this corner to have a horse or camel in it: but it was empty. It had a manger in it for which an unexpected use was found. Here, among the hay and straw, and in the midst of the close and stuffy odours of a stable, they settled themselves down for the night, in all likelihood tired out by the fatigue of the previous day's journey. Before morning, Christ is born.
Such a lowly beginning to the life of Christ upon earth is an astounding fact. We have been so familiar with it ever since we knew the name of Christ, that it fails to strike with the force that belongs to it. A lowlier birth it would be impossible to imagine. Parents lowly, though of noble descent; and forced, for the moment, into the lowliest position in the city of their kindred, to herd with "the ox and the mule which have no understanding," in circumstances offensive to every delicate sensibility, and repugnant to the most rudimentary sense of self-respect! What are we to think about it? It is surely easy to read the lesson. Christ, the highest, began the humblest. "God hath chosen the weak things of this world to confound the mighty." This mode of operation will not cease to be exemplified till God's own glorious power becomes visibly incorporate and manifest in the vessels of His choice. Who among us, then, need weary or be ashamed of the humbling circumstances meanwhile associated with the truth? It is natural to be ashamed of them: but reason forbids. Who among us can wisely seek the great and honourable things of the present world? It is natural to seek them; but wisdom says; "Be content with food and raiment. Be not conformed to the world. Pass the time of your sojourning in fear." If Christ, from the very start of his career, was "conducted with the despised." we may gladly suffer with him on this point during the few days we are here. The reversal that comes with his return to the earth will compensate for all. The sufferings and humiliations of this present time are but "a light affliction," "working out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."
The birth of Mary's child, though an incident of no account among the bustling visitors to Bethlehem, and unknown to the world at large, was not an insignificant occurrence to the angels, who are "sent forth as ministering spirits for them who shall be heirs of salvation" (Heb. i. 14). Jesus afterwards said: "There is joy among the angels over one sinner that repenteth." If their spiritual interest and susceptibility are so keen as to be made glad by the reformation of one sinner, we may understand the interest they would take in the birth of one who came into the world to save a multitude of sinners. They manifested their interest in a way that has left its mark on the language and songs of mankind. They showed themselves outside Bethlehem on the plains, underneath the star-sparkling sky, where a company of shepherds kept watch over their flocks by night. First one only appeared. "The angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them." The shepherds were thrown into great fear by the unusual spectacle. An angel in his brightness is an impressive and terror-causing sight in the light of day: how much more in the darkness of the night. Their alarm was soon quieted by the angels comforting words: "Fear not: for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people." They wonder what tidings this can be. "Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." The shepherds must have been capable of understanding this announcement, or it would not have been made to them. Had it stopped short with the intimation of the birth of a Saviour, they might have supposed it to refer to some ordinary deliverer such as had frequently been raised up in the course of Israel's history -- a deliverer from the yoke of their enemies (in this case, the Romans) for which many were sighing: but the short addition "which is Christ, the Lord," opened out the indefinite prospect of glory connected with the promise of the Messiah. For the understanding of the significance of these words, their acquaintance with the Scriptures must have prepared them; to none but such as are prepared does the Lord's further revelation come.
In their intense and painfully-roused attention, they gave heed to a further announcement that practically connected the angel's glad message with things they could see and handle (all God's genuine messages are of this realistic character). "This shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." (The angel knew about the clothes that Mary had got ready, and had put upon her babe, and when she laid the child in a rude structure never intended for a cradle, other eyes than hers had observed the act, and were now proclaiming it all unknown to Mary outside the town on the plains). The simple but pregnant message being now complete, there is a brief pause, and then -- "Suddenly! there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host." They were invisible before: that is, the eyes of the shepherds had been held from seeing them; but now the pressure being removed, they see a multitude where but one glorious being had talked with them. Not only see, but hear! The heavenly multitude burst into song. Oh, that song. The only kind of song befitting the highest gift of reason -- the measures and cadences that open the heart to the highest fact -- the fact of facts -- the Eternal Wisdom and Power of the Universe in which all things subsist -- the Eternal Father, of whom and through whom and to whom are all things: "Glory to God in the Highest! and on earth peace, and goodwill toward men." These words have been set to gorgeous music since; but who does not feel that the highest human effort must come as far short of the angelic performance as the nature of man is lower than the angels. The shepherds heard music that has not fallen on human ear since, except in the case of John who heard, in vision in Patmos, the strains of the redeemed assisted by "an innumerable company of angels;" and perhaps Paul, who heard unutterable things when (in "visions and revelations") caught away into Paradise. But the music will be heard again, and many times again upon earth. For the work that brought the angels to the plains of Bethlehem 1850 years ago is not arrested, but will go forward to the appointed climax when every knee will bow to the Bethlehem babe; no longer a babe, but the glorified sufferer, in whom dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. "Of his kingdom, there shall be no end": and in his kingdom, there will be no sorrow, but songs of everlasting joy, in which the angels will take effective part.
It is interesting to reflect how much in harmony with human ways it was for the angels to communicate thus to the shepherds. How natural it is to communicate good when you have it. The angels were full of interest at the arrival of a long-promised epoch in the purpose of God upon the earth. There is no evidence that they were commanded to tell the shepherds of the fact. They appeared to have volunteered the information in the fulness of their own joy. Should we not feel moved to do the same if we knew any one that would be deeply interested in we had to tell? Man is in the angelic image, and reflects angelic features in a faint degree. Making people glad when you can, is God-like. The tidings the angels had to tell would not have made any one glad. It would have had no meaning to a company of Roman soldiers, for example. To Israelite shepherds who knew the Scriptures, it was the best they could hear.
The choice the angels made in them is suggestive in another way. They did not go to Herod's palace which was near by. They did not go to the respectable Jewish rabbi of "the city of David" where Christ had been born. They chose a company of lowly men, whose recommendation lay in this -- that they were humble in their own eyes, and deeply interested in the promises of God. The fact is profitable to note, because the principle is an everlasting one, and will shortly receive another exemplification when the angels arrive to announce the return of Christ. "Not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble" will hold good to the end. Not this class will be honoured with the visits of the angels; but those to whom in all ages God's preference has been shown: "the poor of this world, rich in faith."
Having delivered their message, the angels "went away into heaven." The shepherds would see them depart, mounting aloft and gradually disappearing from sight. We look with the shepherds, and get a glimpse of a higher life than we know, yet one that has a practical interest for us, because we hope to be made "equal to the angels." The angels, glorious in nature, exhaustless in power, immortal in life and strength, have the faculty of traversing the dizzy depths and boundless fields of viewless space at will. Their number is countless; their mission, divine (Rev. v. II; Psa. ciii. 20, 21.) The contemplation of the fact impart a sublimer idea of the universe than is possible to those who suppose that "the splendid heavens a shining frame" exist for no higher end than the sustenance of the feeble orders of animal life that we know in this part of it. The universe becomes in Bible light, a peopled arcanum of glorious and noble life, whose vast e?rial fields are but so many highways that can be traversed from world to world, as the errands of Almighty Power and wisdom may require. To the unenlightened secular mind, this revealed fact is but a pretty fable: to the higher intelligence, it is the garb of inevitable truth: for it seems a necessary induction of reason that the splendid framework of heaven and earth must have within it a use and application equal to its greatness and glory, which could not be recognisable if life, as it now is upon earth, is the only form of it throughout its measureless fields.
Having received a clue by which they might verify the extraordinary communication that had been made to them under the starlit and silent vault of heaven (while all the world was asleep), the shepherds repaired "with haste" to neighbouring Bethlehem, "to see (as they said) this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord had made known unto us." They were not long in finding Joseph and Mary, in the virtual cattle-pen at the inn. But were was the babe? Was it nestling in it mother's bosom? Was it snugly laid in the straw by the side of its mother? It was very likely to be so. It was improbable that the babe -- especially such a babe -- would be put in a place used for the feeding of beasts. But there it was: they found the "babe lying in a manger." This was the conclusive sign to them. What more natural than that they should at once "make known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child." This is Christ the Lord. "All they that heard, wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds." It was natural it should be so. It is what would happen in any village at the present day. The people would open eyes and mouth and exclaim. The wonder would be but "a nine days' wonder," as it probably was at Bethlehem. Intelligence rests and feeds on wisdom: ignorance gloats on the marvellous. It was a complaint of Jesus afterwards: "except ye see signs and wonders ye will not believe." Signs and wonders are valuable in their relation to the facts required by wisdom; but not otherwise. Mary was a more attentive and thoughtful listener to the sayings of the shepherds than the people about the place. Her knowledge qualified her to be so. "She kept all these things and pondered them in her heart." Her surroundings would indispose her to be communicative on the subject. Her state precluded it: and her position, amidst the bustle of a crowded inn, and amongst people mostly indifferent and unsympathetic, would not encourage her to say much on a subject of which, although she knew more than any one else at the time, she yet understood so little. "Pondering them in her heart" was the natural thing for her in all the circumstances. The shepherds were delighted. They had found things in accordance with the intimation made to them by the angels, and therefore felt the joy that was calculated to come from the confidence that this was the promised Messiah. They would look forward to the growth of the child and the manifestation of the man, with the anticipation that in a single generation at the most, the glory promised to Israel would be revealed in their midst. They returned to their flocks, "glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them."