By Janice D. Green
I have always loved family reunions, and now that my family and relatives are scattered all over the United States and beyond, I treasure them all the more.
Our reunions have to be planned well in advance and require lots of additional space for all the extended families of our siblings and cousins.
But more than 2,000 years ago, a reunion took place that could have been planned only by God with the aid of some most unlikely party planners.
Before we get to the reunion, we need a brief background history lesson. Since the time of Moses, the Jewish people tended to live in the lands of their ancestors whenever possible, as that land was understood to be their inheritance from God. But approximately 165 years before this most unusual reunion, a murderous, self-proclaimed god-king, Antiochus Epiphanes, began a reign of ter-ror against the Jewish nation. He massacred many Jews and made it illegal for the survivors to prac-tice any form of Jewish rituals or sacrifices. He outlawed circumcision, replaced the Jewish altar in the temple with an altar to the pagan god Zeus, sacrificed a pig on it and required Jews to sacrifice to Zeus on his altar.
This was totally intolerable to the most faithful Jews, and most of the Jews who survived the mas-sacres abandoned their homes to move away from Judea where the persecution was the worst. Jerusalem was the capitol of Judea, and Bethlehem was a small town close to Jerusalem where King David had been born centuries earlier.
Back to our reunion. Enter the pompous and mighty Caesar Augustus, who had a notion to count all the people in his vast Roman Empire. Not only did he want a population count, but he also ex-pected everyone to travel to their hometowns and cities to register for this great census. Little did he know, he was planning reunions of peoples all over the land.
But the most spectacular reunion took place in the little town of Bethlehem.
Try to imagine the thoughts that might be going through the travelers’ minds as they made their way up or down the passageways between the towns. How many years had it been since their fami-lies moved away? How could they find those distant relatives? Would they open their homes to them?
Travelers memorized the names of their ancestors and possibly had them written down and tucked away in their belongings they carried with them.
How many miles did the people travel to get to Bethlehem? People coming from Nazareth traveled 70 miles, and the last part was all uphill.
Under normal circumstances, travelers would come to the city gate and hope one of the local peo-ple would see them and invite them to stay in their homes for the night. In my imagination, some of the residents were eager to help, while others remained suspicious and fearful. So many travel-ers coming at the same time surely overwhelmed the residents of this little town. If any reunion needed a planner, this one surely did.
Somehow, over the chaos of the situation, there were likely joyous sounds as well, as people began to reconnect with their long-lost distant relatives. Snatches of phrases might catch one’s ear like, “You remind me of … ,” “I always wondered what happened to … ” or “Did you hear about … ?”
And in part of town here and there, laughter could be heard as families rediscovered each other.
One young couple wasn’t as fortunate. The young woman was obviously pregnant and weary from the long trip. People would see them walking along stopping here and there, hoping to find a place to stay, but were always turned away. Eventually the couple disappeared into the night.
Finally, the little town quieted down for the night as people tried to sleep. But a very different kind of traveler appeared from the night sky to some shepherds off in the countryside, where they were watching their sheep.
This angelic traveler brought a big announcement from God telling them the Messiah was born this night and they could find him lying in a manger in Bethlehem. The sky was suddenly filled with an-gelic travelers praising God. Then they returned to heaven.
Did the people in town hear the angels or see the glow in the sky? We aren’t told.
The shepherds quickly ran to Bethlehem to search for the Christ child. They found him lying in a manger just like the angel told them, and they were filled with awe. They couldn’t keep this won-derful news to themselves. They ran all over Bethlehem looking for people to tell the good news.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Who might the shepherds have found to tell about the baby Messiah? Probably only those who couldn’t find a bed to sleep in that night. Did the shepherds knock on doors to tell people about the baby king? Did they shout in the streets? Did the people believe them?
The reunion continued the next morning as people awoke and heard the talk of the town. Did they believe it? Did the people take the news back to the towns they came from? We don’t know.
Only one of the Gospels tells this story, suggesting that the people didn’t really believe the shepherds.
Green has been a member for 25 years of First UMC, Hemingway, and is a certified lay servant. She is also the author and publisher of children’s Bible storybooks through Honeycomb Adventures Press, LLC.