Surely grim January must be the dullest month of the year. Spring is too far ahead for its coming to be of any comfort and even the first lone snowdrop under the old ash tree in my garden does little to dispel the gloom. Indeed, its solitary nature seems to emphasise the bleakness which is all around. The dead leaves from last autumn still litter the flower borders and although the reasoning part of my mind tells me that they will soon decay into a rich humus which will fertilise the ground and be reincarnated in the glorious flowers of May, the emotional part of my nature cannot conceptualise this. Furthermore, although the days are getting longer, the improvement day by day is so slight that it can contribute little to lighten the scene. January is the dullest of months.
There is another aspect which serves to emphasise the dullness of the new year, and that is the fact that the Christmas celebrations are all over and done with. On the sixth of January falls the Feast of the Epiphany or, as it is more likely to be called in our secular society, Twelfth Night. At midnight on that date the twelve days of Christmas come to an end. The decorations, lights and Christmas trees are taken down and just as our physical eyes have to adjust when coming into darkness from a brightly lit area, so the eyes of the soul have to adjust when faced with a transition from inner light to inner darkness..
In an attempt to get some of the spirit of Christmas back into my soul I took down the Bible and began to read again the two New Testament accounts of the nativity of Jesus. I started with Luke’s purely to keep chronological faithfulness for Luke describes the events which are said to have taken place within a few hours of the birth, whereas Matthew has the wise men from the east arriving much later, when the family had been settled back into a house. (Matthew chapter 2,verse 11.) While reading Luke a question came into my mind.
WHERE HAVE ALL THE SOLDIERS GONE?
Why did I expect soldiers at that stable scene where the emphasis must surely have been on peace and love? To understand the question we must first remove from the story a lot of the detritus which has formed around it over the years, and I believe that the first task is to sweep away some very erroneous ideas about the meaning of the title “Messiah.”
Christian piety has clothed the Messiah in an aura of mystique which has absolutely no bearing on reality. He is depicted as a supernatural, heavenly figure, far above the human, who will one day come in power and glory. To the Jews of two thousand years ago the Messiah was something quite different although there had been an abortive attempt by some Jewish groups in the centre before Jesus to effect a similar transition.. He was a King born into the house and lineage of David. He was therefore a human being, an ordinary, common or garden king. If there was any divine endowment to be found it was nothing more than the concept that because he was born into that line, God must want him to rule over His chosen people. At the time of the birth of Jesus the country was occupied by the Romans and this was a cause of great resentment to the Jews, especially as the bearer of the Royal title, Herod, was a Roman puppet monarch. They wanted a Son of David to take the throne and lead the people of Israel to freedom. Such an action would have been suicidal, and it was probably for that reason that for many years none of the men entitled to hold the office had agreed to do so. They knew that what the people were demanding was ridiculous. God was on the side of the big battalions and it was Rome that had the big battalions. Jesus himself was to refuse the Messiahship on several occasions and the people became so frustrated by his constant refusals that on one occasion they tried to make a king of him by force! (John chapter 6, verse 15.)
There was a great sense of crisis among the Jewish people for they lived with the constant fear that the Royal Line of David was about to die out. Only one strand of that dynasty remained and it was represented by Joseph who later became the father of Jesus. The impression of Joseph which we get from the Gospel accounts is of a man well established in society and it is inconceivable that he could have reached such a status without being married. To the Jews marriage was vitally important and many public offices were not open to single men. Witness the fact that a single man could not – and cannot today – become a Rabbi. Joseph’s first marriage, of which we know nothing at all, was either childless or produced children who did not survive. There is no foundation for the common belief that Joseph was an old man at the time of the birth of Jesus. He would have been, however, a man under pressure to marry again and give Israel at least one male child with the right to sit on the throne of his father David. Actually Joseph sired five male offspring of whom Jesus was the first. (Matthew chapter 13, verses 55 and 56.) The line of David had become much more secure as a result because all five of Joseph’s children could in turn produce heirs who would take their place in the line to the Royal Seat..
Whatever the reason might have been Joseph did not accept the Royal role but he did become engaged to a young woman called Miriam (rendered as Mary in English) and while she was engaged to him Miriam became pregnant. The fact that she conceived before the final stage of the marriage process may have led many in later years to conclude that Jesus did not have a legitimate claim to the throne, while others argued that the previous completion of part one of the contract meant that intercourse between the couple was legitimate and therefore any offspring conceived during this period were true children of the marriage. The Jewish Law, usually very clear, appears to have presented an ambiguity at this point. Saint Luke’s story of the Royal couple being forced to travel to Bethlehem because of a census is certainly fictitious. There is no evidence of a census at anything like the appropriate time, and the census mentioned by Luke as having occurred”when Cyrenius (or, in some versions, Quirinius) was Governor of Syria” was the well documented one of 6 A.D., some ten years after the death of Herod the Great. In connection with the census we may reject out of hand the story of every man having to travel to the city of his birth to be enrolled. That would have caused chaos throughout the Empire and would have been a totally unnecessary factor. Imperious Caesar wanted the census to root out the tax dodgers. He was not at all interested in where a man had been born, but only where he lived then. Herod was all too evident when Jesus was born and it is obvious that considerable steps were taken to prevent the news of a potential new Messiah reaching his ears. These attempts at secrecy were successful until the so-called Wise Men made one of the greatest blunders in history by going to the Palace of Herod and by so doing let the proverbial cat out of the proverbial bag.
If the census story is false then how did the Royal family come to be in a stable? One obvious possibility is that it was a means of disguise. Mary and Joseph would be seen as poor travellers who had found themselves faced with the birth while on the road. There would have been plenty of people who would gladly have provided shelter for the birth of their Messiah but the risk to security of accepting those offers would have been great.,
Knowing the ruthlessness of Herod we would expect all possible measures to be taken to protect the new heir to the throne. Certainly Israel had no official army for it was a nation under the tyrannical rule of a foreign power, Rome. It is true that Pilate refers to the Temple Guard when he was giving orders in connection with the sepulture of Jesus (Matthew chapter 27, verse 65.) but I can find no evidence at all for the existence of this body at the time of the birth of Jesus. Even if it did exist it would probably have been a small corps and no match for the troops of Herod, which troops were accepted and even maintained by Rome. However, there were plenty of good and loyal men who were ready to take up arms in the defence of their new Messiah designate. It is most unlikely that Israel did not have a secret underground army, perhaps not unlike the French Resistance Movement in World War Two
WHERE HAVE ALL THE SOLDIERS GONE?
Where would we expect to find the guard? Not actually in the stable because that would draw attention to the fact that something unusual was going on and with Herod’s Palace a mere ten kilometres up the road word would certainly have reached him and his paranoia would have caused him to investigate. The inquiry would have led him to take steps to get rid of the helpless infant who threatened his rule- as it did a short time after when the order went forth from Jerusalem to kill all the male babies in Bethlehem and the surrounding area who were under two years of age. Many a foul deed had been perpetrated in Jerusalem but this must surely have been the worse. The City really deserves the parody of a modern hymn;
“Jerusalem the Golden
. With grinding traffic cursed,
Upon thine ancient ramparts
Three faiths have done their worse.
Here Muslim, Jew and Christian
Against each other stood
And proved to all Earth’s doubters
Religion ain’t no good.”
WHERE HAD ALL THE SOLDIERS GONE?
GONE TO SHEPHERDS EVERY ONE!
Yes, that’s right. The soldiers had disguised themselves as shepherds!
Shepherds were always about at night, but not usually in sufficient numbers, I suggest, to conceal a force big enough to take on Herod’s troops. However, during the lambing season extra help would be called in to cope with the additional work involved. Retired shepherds would polish up their kit and set out to earn a few shekels on the side, while members of the general public would give it a go. I happen to live in a sheep-farming area and I can testify that this is exactly what occurs here. So there would be plenty of shepherds up on the hills and in Bethlehem itself to allow a fair force of soldiers in disguise to be among them. If this is indeed the case then Jesus must have been born in the first three months of the year, for January, February and March are the months when the lambs are born.
The plot is really given away by the fact that some of the”shepherds” when they hear of the birth immediately leave the fields and go to the stable. NO SHEPHERD WOULD DO SUCH A THING. They would wait until their relief’s arrived at the shift change-over times and only then go to the place where the child lay. Yet when the Heavenly messenger gives them the welcome news, off they go. And rightly so because the young Messiah in Waiting must be protected.
Luke’s story of the multitude of the Heavenly Host appearing is doubtful as it stands. At a time when all concerned are taking great measures to maintain secrecy heavenly visitors singing in the sky would present an unwelcome phenomenon. I venture to suggest the following scenario. As we consider it we need to remember that the word “Angel” derives from the Greek “Aggelos” (pronounced Angelos) and merely means a messenger. So when Saint John in the Book of Revelation sends messages to the Angels of the Churches he is simply addressing the messages to the Secretaries of the fellowships in question, that is, to the people who received and sent messages. The messenger who came to give the news that the expected Messiah had been delivered would have been either the commanding officer of the illicit force or one of his senior officers to whom tbe task had been delegated. My expectation is that it would be the latter, the commanding officer would feel it to be his duty to be near the stable – just in case.
As for the sudden appearance of the Heavenly Host, we cannot be at all confident as to what this refers. However, I will throw out now a suggestion – and it is nothing more. When the announcement was made the disguised soldiers would reveal their identities and sing happily, their joy being due in part to the coming of the child and partly to the fact that this news meant they could come down from the Judean hills, get back to civilisation and get on with the job they enjoyed and were good at – mounting a guard. Is it taking imagination too far to suggest that the Israeli undercover army, dedicated as it was to the protection of the religious standards of the land, might have been named the Heavenly Messengers? Thus there was a great multitude of the Heavenly Host because the soldiers who went by that proud designation revealed to the genuine shepherds who they were.
I do not want the reader to get the impression that I do not believe in what are called spiritual or psychic phenomenon. Other articles on this website should make it clear that I DO believe in such things. However, it does not follow that all the stories which claim to portray such things do in fact do so. Before classifying a story in the “spiritual phenomenon” area we should diligently enquire whether a more mundane explanation will not serve – as I believe is the case here. In my student days there was a great interest in the movement known as the “Demythologists”, typified by the late Canon Heaton of Coventry Cathedral. They tried to explain everything in everyday terms, but I felt at the time that they went too far and finished up seeing no spiritual side at all.. I would not wish to be classified as one of them – with apologies to Canon Heaton whose spirit might well be watching over my shoulder as I type these words. If that comment does not show you where I stand, nothing will.
The complicated plan worked and the new Messiah was safe for a while. In fact the existence of a new baby of the house and lineage of David would probably not have been revealed at all if there had not come from the east wise men bearing gifts for the infant king. They made the fatal, and we must admit, stupid mistake of enquiring at Herod’s Court as to where the new baby was. So, alerted by the “wise” men Herod took typically robust action, ordering the slaying of all the male children in the district of Bethlehem who were under two years of age? (Matthew chapter 2, verse 16) The visitors brought gold and frankincense and myrrh but by their coming forced Joseph and Mary and Jesus to become refugees, with all the hardship that such a status must have brought with it, and also left an unknown but probably considerable number of parents sorrowing bitterly for their dead boys.
What a pity the wise men ever came.
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