It is Christmas again. The time when God’s favour is poured on humanity. It is also the time when ArtMatters.Info, that has since crawled its way up to become the premier critical arts and culture website covering eastern and southern Africa, and the Indian Ocean Islands, was conceived and born in a nondescript building on River Road, downtown Nairobi, Kenya. To mark these two events, publisher OGOVA ONDEGO reenacts the biblical account of the birth of the messiah in “The first Christmas” for our esteemed readers, partners, and supporters. Merry Christmas.
Little Bethlehem was bustling with life like never before. The Roman emperor, Augustus, had three months earlier issued a decree that all people be issued with new generation identity cards. From this, he hoped to raise more revenue for the treasury besides determining the military, and therefore political, strength of the Jews. To ensure that every one registered he had said that all people return to their ancestral homes where they were known to their chiefs and be registered by tribes. That was why Bethlehem, the City of David, was filled to capacity. All people above the age of 18 years from the tribe of Judah studying, working or living in other parts of Israel had returned home in time for the registration exercise scheduled for the next day.
The trickle of people which had begun a week earlier was now a flood. Even though doing a brisk business, hoteliers were finding it difficult to cope with this mass of people. Some had put up makeshift dwelling places using cheap materials such as canvas, cardboard and even polythene paper in order to cash in on the influx of visitors. Zacchaeus, the proprietor of Zacchaeus & Sons Hotels, Lodges and Related Businesses, was so happy he was falling all over himself to cram as many people into the hotel as possible. He had so many visitors he sent some of them to bathrooms, stables and other places unfit for human occupation, and yet still charged them three times the usual lodging fees for double self-contained rooms.
Even though a member of the Opposition, Zacchaeus was fulsome in praise of Augustus for ordering the census. He even wished that such events would come up more often. But Abigail, his wife, almost loathed Zacchaeus, a greedy man whose motto was: “Strike while the iron is hot.” She and her daughter, Ruth, were worn out by much standing, running about, cooking, fetching water, and washing utensils. “How much room do we still have?” Zacchaeus asked Abigail. “Not much my lord,” she answered cautiously, flipping through a file.
“Be careful who you admit,” he said without looking at her. “We already have enough trouble trying to feed our guests.” As he said this he saw a man leading a donkey in the direction of their hotel. A tired looking woman sat on it. “Do you have any room for….” the haggard man began. “Who are you?” Zacchaeus cut him in mid sentence. “My name is Joseph. I come from Nazareth in Galilee,” he said. That he was from Galilee, Zacchaeus could tell from his accent, and his being poor could be seen from his garments. “We don’t serve Gentiles here,” bellowed Zacchaeus. “In any case can you afford our services?” This was the tenth hotel Joseph had visited that day and yet was being turned away. The sun was making a hasty retreat in the west and Joseph’s hopes were sinking with it. Where would he and his wife sleep? They had been on the road for the past five days and they were tired, dirty and hungry. What they needed was a cold bath, some hot food and a peaceful night’s rest.
The essence of Christmas.
“Please sir, my wife is… well, as you can see, uhm… is expectant,” Joseph tried to choose his word carefully. “She could go into labour any time from now. Even though I live and work in Nazareth, I am a native of Bethlehem; a descendant of King David.” But Zacchaeus was not listening .He was busy calculating how much money he would make by the time the census was over. However, Joseph thought he saw some motherly compassion in the eyes of Abigail. A Jew, Joseph was aware that there was nothing Abigail could do as Zacchaeus had the last word. “Please Sir…” Joseph persisted, and this jolted Zacchaeus back to his senses. “Because you come from Galilee of the Gentiles,” said Zacchaeus, exchanging glances with Abigail, “you can use my stable.” “Is that the best you can offer?” asked Joseph, shocked. “At least it is better than nothing. Take it or leave it,” Zacchaeus said with exasperation, looking away
Thoughts flashed through Mary’s mind in quick succession. Hadn’t the angel told her almost nine months back that she would bear a great son who would rule Israel as King? That he would be God’s very Son? Surely the angel could not have lied to her. But if what he said was true, why was there no room for them in all the hotels in Bethlehem? Hadn’t she wondered why the angel had chosen her, an unknown girl in an out-of-the-way village, to be the Messiah’s mother? Just then another guest, a teacher of law in a convoy of six donkeys, arrived in style and was quickly whisked into the hotel. Mary’s heart sank, but she did not complain. “What do you say, Galilean?” Mary heard Zacchaeus address her husband. “Are you taking my offer or not? Pay for it quickly or leave. You are an eye-sore to my honorable guests,” Zacchaeus said with finality. “Please take it, my lord,” the pale, frail-looking Mary, told Joseph who well remembered that it was this same Mary who had persuaded him to travel to Bethlehem for registration. Because of Mary’s advanced pregnancy, Joseph had not wanted to travel but Mary had persuaded him that everything would be fine as God was in control. She had said that God would protect them and Joseph had relented.
Joseph, with a heavy heart, paid for the cave that was hewn in stone and used as a stable, and led Mary towards it. Surely God’s Son should not be born in a smelly and noisy cave, he thought sadly. Thoughts were also cruising in Mary’s mind. She felt sorry for Joseph who had had to walk beside the donkey carrying her, supporting her all the way from Nazareth, almost 100 kilometres away. At one time, as they rested for the night, his knees had become stiff and refused to move. Mary had had to knead them with a warm, wet piece of cloth. She had also applied some ointment on his blistered toes. She also pitied the little donkey which had eaten very little during the five days they had been on the road. Eager to have the registration done over with, she recalled, they had been among the first to set off for Bethlehem. But because Joseph had been very concerned about her health, they had crawled at a snail’s pace and had fallen behind, till they had been among the last to reach Bethlehem. “Why is every hotelier so callous?” Joseph said to no one in particular. In fact, he could not even have realised that he was speaking loudly had Mary not replied.
“By offering a cave,” Joseph heard Mary say, “he has proved that he is kinder than many who have turned us away.” A little later, as Joseph cleared some space for the night in the now almost dark cave, Mary’s eyes fell on a manger, half filled with hay. “A perfect place for the baby. Oh, what a strange place for the King of kings to be born,” she thought. A few hours later, on a dark, starry night, the Son of God came. Humanity, though having waited for him for ages, had forgotten his identity. Some were looking for a priestly messiah, some for a political deliverer while others wanted a supernatural judge to avenge them against colonial excesses.