JOSEPH AND MARY AT BETHLEHEM
Octavius Augustus, the Emperor of Rome, wishing to know the strength of his empire, decreed that there be a general numbering of all his subjects; and for this purpose he ordered the governors of all the provinces — and, among the rest, Cyrinus, governor of Judea — to make every one come to enroll himself, and at the same time pay a certain tribute as a sign of vassalage: There went out a decree … that the whole world should be enrolled (Luke ii. 1). As soon as this decree was promulgated, Joseph obeys immediately; he does not even wait till his holy spouse should be delivered, though the time is near. I say he obeyed immediately, and set out on his journey with Mary, then pregnant with the Divine Word, to go and enrol himself in the City of Bethlehem: to be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child (Luke ii. 5). The journey was a long one — for, according to some authors, it was ninety leagues; that is, four days’ journey — long and difficult, for they had to traverse mountains and steep paths, through the wind, the rain and the cold.
When a king makes his first entry into a city of his kingdom, what honours are not prepared for him! What preparations are not made, and triumphal arches erected! Do thou, then, O happy Bethlehem! prepare thyself to receive thy King with honour; for the Prophet Micheas has told thee that He is coming to thee, and that He is Lord, not only of all Judea, but of the whole world. And know, says the Prophet, thou, out of all the cities of the earth, art the fortunate one that has been chosen by the King of Heaven for His birthplace, that He may afterwards reign, not indeed in Judea, but in the hearts of men who live in Judea and in all the rest of the world: And thou, Bethlehem Ephrata, art a little one among the thousands of Juda: out of thee shall he come forth that is to be Ruler in Israel (Mich. v. 2). But behold these two illustrious pilgrims, Joseph and Mary, who bears within her womb the Saviour of the world, are about to enter into Bethlehem. They enter and go to the house of the imperial minister to pay the tribute, and to enrol themselves in the book as subjects of Caesar, where they also inscribed the offspring of Mary, namely, Jesus Christ, Who was the Lord of Caesar and of all the princes of the earth. But who acknowledges them? Who goes before them to show them honour? Who salutes them, and who receives them? He came unto his own, and his own received him not (John i. 11). They travel like poor people, and as such they are despised; they are treated even worse than the other poor, and are driven away. Yes; for it came to pass when they were there her days were accomplished that she should be delivered (Luke ii. 6). Mary knew that the time of her delivery was come, and that it was here, and on this night, that the Incarnate Word willed to be born, and to manifest Himself to the world. She therefore told Joseph, and he hastened to procure some lodgings in the houses of the townspeople, so as not to take his spouse to the inn to be delivered, as it was not a becoming place for her to be; besides which, it was then full of people. But Joseph found no one to listen to him; and very likely he was insulted, and perhaps called a fool by some of them, for taking his wife about at that time of night, and in such a crowd of people, when she was near her delivery; so that at last he was obliged, unless he would remain all night in the street, to take her to the public inn, where there were many other people lodging that night. He went there; but they were refused admittance even there, and they were told that there was no room for them: There was no room for them in the inn (Luke ii. 7). Room was found for all, even for the lowest, but not for Jesus Christ.
That inn was a figure of those ungrateful hearts where many find room for miserable creatures, but not for God. How many love their relatives, their friends, even animals, but do not love Jesus Christ, and care neither for His grace nor His love! But the ever-blessed Mary said once to a devout soul: “It was the dispensation of God that neither I nor my Son should find a lodging amongst men, that those souls who love Jesus might offer themselves as a lodging-place, and might affectionately invite Him to come into their hearts.”
These poor travellers, then, seeing themselves repulsed on every side, leave the city to try and find some place of refuge without its walls. They walk on in the dark; they go round about and examine, till at last they see a grotto, which was cut out of stone in the mountain under the city. Barradas, Bede, and Brocardus say that the place where Jesus Christ was born was a rock that had been excavated under the walls of Bethlehem, divided off from the city, and like a cavern, which served as a stable for cattle. When they came to it Mary said to Joseph: “There is no occasion to go any farther; let us go into this cave and remain here.” “What!” replied Joseph, “my spouse, dost thou not see that this cave is quite exposed; that it is cold and damp, and that water is running down on all sides? Dost thou not see that it is no lodging for men, but it is a shed for beasts? How canst thou stop here all night and be delivered here?” Then Mary said: “It is nevertheless true that this stable is the royal palace in which the Eternal Son of God desires to be born on earth.”
Oh, what must the Angels have said when they saw the divine Mother enter into this cave to bring forth her Son! The sons of princes are born in rooms adorned with gold; they have cradles enriched with precious stones, fine clothes, a retinue of the first lords of the kingdom; and has the King of Heaven nothing but a cold stable, without a fire, to be born in, some poor swaddling clothes to cover Him, a little straw for His bed, and a vile manger in which to lie? “Where is the palace,” asks St. Bernard, “where is the throne?” Where, says the Saint, is the court, where is the royal palace for this King of Heaven? for I see nothing but two animals to keep Him company, and a manger for cattle, where He must be laid. O happy grotto, that witnessed the birth of the Divine Word! Happy manger to have had the honour of receiving the Lord of Heaven! Happy straw which served as a bed to Him Who sits on the shoulders of the Seraphim! Ah, when we think of the birth of Jesus Christ, and of the manner in which it took place, we ought all to be inflamed with love; and when we hear the names of cave, manger, straw, milk, tears, in reference to the birth of our Redeemer, these names ought to be so many incitements to our love, and arrows to wound our hearts. Yes, happy was that grotto, that crib, that straw; but still happier are those souls who love this amiable Lord with fervour and tenderness, and who receive Him in Holy Communion into hearts burning with love. Oh, with what desire and pleasure does not Jesus Christ enter into and repose in a heart that loves Him!