I was speaking to friends the other day about what the first Christmas Eve must have been like. Today, we are caught up in last minute shopping, the hustle of wrapping gifts, the shine of brightly colored lights, the preparation of mountains of food, and the greetings of friends and family from far and near. Our homes are decorated inside and out and filled with laughter and heavenly smells.
We often water down the truth God gives us and twist it to match what we think life should be. We see colorful, brightly lit, plastic nativity scenes depicting a peaceful family and gentle animals adoring an infant in sweet repose. Our pictures show well-rested shepherds and wise men decked out in rich fabrics visiting the family. We can see the angels who watch over the scene.
But what was the first Christmas Eve like?
What the First Christmas Eve Was Really Like
Reading the Gospel of Luke gives us insight to the real world Jesus chose to be born into. We know from Luke 2:1-5 that Caesar Augustus sent a decree demanding that all people be registered with the government. To do this, residents needed to leave their homes and travel, sometimes great distances, often walking or riding on the back of domestic animals.
Anyone who has ever ridden a horse knows the aches and pains that can be associated with horseback riding. I imagine that riding the animals available in the Bethlehem area 2000 years ago must have been even more discomforting, even for those used to riding.
Before families could leave their homes to register, they would have needed to figure out how to take care for family members and domestic animals and crops left behind. They would have had to deal with the loss of income that came from taking a trek such as the one Caesar Augustus demanded. They would have had to prepare and gather enough food, water, shelter, clothing, tinder, and tools to make the trip. They would have had to determine how to protect themselves from outlaws along the road.
Imagine the reality of the stable: the animals would not have smelled good. I’m guessing the shepherds (and probably Mary and Joseph) would not have smelled good either. Pain in childbirth originated with Eve’s sin so we don’t know if Mary had pain in childbirth, but, either way, she would have been exhausted from the trip and from nursing and caring for a newborn baby. The family and travelers would have been exposed to the elements. Visitors arrived from all over at all times of the day and night, and the family could not turn them away.
The trip would not have been a vacation.
And that would have been under the best of circumstances, but we know this was not the best of times.
King Herod was a dictator who could rule over his people with an iron fist. The Gospel of Matthew describes The Visit of the Magi during which these three wise men go to King Herod and ask for the newborn king of the Jews. (Matt 2:1-6)
Imagine the fear this newborn king would have caused King Herod and all of Jerusalem (Matt 2:3). Rather than praying to discover the purpose of this newborn King of the Jews, rather than looking into things further, King Herod chose to act swiftly and harshly in his own interest.
Although Jesus was spared the slaughter, through the visitation of the angel to the wise men, other infants were not. Matt 2:16-18 is entitled, “The Massacre of the Infants,” such a small part of the Bible – just three short lines, and yet what an impact this must have made on the people affected by it.
I picture women and their newborns hiding in shadows praying they will be passed over. Mothers holding their hands over their infants mouths hushing them frantically and hoping they remain quiet. I picture the babies picking up on the fear of those around them and awakening, tuning in to the fact that something is very wrong with those who make them feel safe and loved. I picture fathers powerlessly fighting to defend their wives as they fearfully, tearfully, beg soldiers to not harm their babes. I picture siblings confused and afraid and heartbroken with the loss of their beloved brother, questioning things they should have done differently and also coming to terms with their own mortality at such a young age.
I also picture the soldiers who may not have wanted to participate in the horror but afraid to bring similar harm to their own families if they did not follow orders.
In reality, the first Christmas Eve was probably not the peaceful vision of what we now think it is. We often get a view of what we think life should be like, and yet reality shows it is seldom so.
None of those who were at the stable that first Christmas Eve and, even more so, none of the families grieving the loss of their baby sons during that Christmas season could have possibly understood that what was happening was part of God’s plan, that it would one day lead His people to Him and to an eternity without suffering and filled with peace and love, even for those dead baby boys.
Life is usually not the picture we have of a peaceful family gathered in a manger. Neither is it like the picture we have now of what should be: that of our intact family sipping hot cocoa and singing carols around a piano on a white Christmas.
We don’t often know why things happen when they are happening, but we can rely on the promise of that Baby born in a manger so long ago. We can know that just as surely as those angels watched over Jesus and those at the stable on that first Christmas, the Lord has angels watching over us in our times of need and in our times of rejoicing. As improbable as it seems, as it must have seemed to those suffering families long ago, the light, hope, and love of this Christmas is what shines eternal.
This Christmas, take time to remember, to reflect on, and to pray for those who participated in that very first Christmas Eve and for all those who are questioning life right now. Do not let the fear or depression of the first Christmas Eve darken the rejoicing and hope of tomorrow.
How will you turn over your suffering this Christmas to the Lord so that the promise of Jesus shines through the darkness? I’d like to hear your thoughts.