1. And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled.
And it came to pass, etc.; i.e., it happened in accordance with the decrees of Divine Providence, that, soon after the birth and circumcision of John the Baptist, a decree emanated from the Roman Emperor that the census of the whole Roman Empire should be taken. The object of this census was most probably for the sake of increasing the tax income.
Caesar Augustus, who was the first Roman Emperor, and grand nephew of Julius Caesar. Augustus reigned forty-three years. Christ was born around the 25th year of his reign.
2. This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria.
This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, etc. This verse causes a difficulty, because Tertullian (Adv. Marc. iv. 7, 19) tells us that the census was taken by Sentius Saturninus. The difficulty is first explained by saying that the census was taken by S. Saturninus (then Governor of Syria), but under the direction of Cyrinus, who was especially appointed for this purpose by the Emperor, and who, ten years later, became Governor of Syria. St. Luke therefore speaks of Cyrinus as the Governor of Syria, most probably, because he was later appointed to that office. Another good explanation is that this particular census was begun by Saturninus and Quintilius Varus, but was brought to a close by their successor, Cyrinus, who, consequently, gave his name to it. According to Mommsen (Res gestae divi Augusti) and Zumt (De Syria Romana Provinncia) Cyrinus was twice governor of Syria, — first from 750- 753 of Rome, when this “first” census was completed; and a second time from 759-765, when another, or second census was taken, which caused a great revolt in Galilee. The second census is mentioned by St. Luke in Acts 5:37, and by Josephus in Jewish Ant. xviii. I.
3. And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city.
Everyone into his own city; i.e., into the city from which the head of his family had sprung. Bethlehem was the City of David, and this is why Joseph and Mary, who were of the family of David, went thither. The Jewish custom required that each one should be enrolled in the place where his ancestors were born, and this census seems to have been taken by the local authorities and according to the custom of the Jews.
4. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David,
Bethlehem means “house of bread.” It was situated on a ridge of hills about seven miles south of Jerusalem, and eighty miles from Nazareth.
5. To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child.
With Mary. Both Joseph and Mary went to Jerusalem to be enrolled, because women, as well as men, had to be enrolled when there was a question —as most likely in the present instance—of capitation-tax. Women were inscribed upon the public registers only when, having no brothers, they inherited the paternal property. Hence Mary, who seems to have had no brothers, went to be enrolled most likely under the title of heiress. Some say that the obligation of enrollment was imposed upon all the women of Israel. At any rate the law made subject to personal tax all women between the ages of twelve and sixty years. Cf. Ulpianus, D. L. XV. De Censibus.
6. And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered.
When they were there, etc. It is the opinion of some that our Lord was born immediately after Joseph and Mary reached Bethlehem; others think the nativity occurred during a few days which they spent there, either before or after the enrollment.
7. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And she brought forth, etc. The Blessed Virgin gave birth to our Lord, not only without detriment to her virginity, but also without the pain, labor, and fatigue which are experienced by ordinary mothers.
Her first-born son. He is called the “first-born,” because special rights and duties fell to the lot of the first-born. According to the almost universal tradition of the Church our Lord was born on December 25.
And laid him in a manger. These words show that our Lord was born in a stable; both tradition and modern research are agreed that this stable was a cave hewn out of a rock, into which animals, especially sheep, were driven during storms, and for shelter at night. The inns at Bethlehem were all filled with the multitudes who had come there for enrollment.
8. And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flock.
In the same country; i.e., in the neighborhood of Bethlehem.
Shepherds watching, etc. The Greek word for watching is αγραυλουντες, which literally means, “dwelling in the fields.” It was not extraordinary that shepherds with their flocks should be in the fields at this season of the year. Experienced travelers tell us that the end of December in Palestine is often the most agreeable time of the year. Even to-day, after the December rains, the Arabs leave their dwellings about the middle of the month and go down into the plains with their flocks.
9. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear.
10. And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people:
That shall be to all the people; i.e., to all the Jewish people. Our Lord was to be in reality the Saviour of all men, both Jews and Gentiles, but the angels perhaps did not know that He was to be the Saviour of the Gentiles also.
11. For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.
Christ the Lord; i.e., the Anointed, the Messiah.
12. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.
And laid in a manger. The stable and manger here referred to were doubtless well known to all the shepherds of that neighborhood; otherwise the angel would have designated more definitely the manger in which our Lord lay.
13. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying:
A multitude of the heavenly army; i.e., a great number of angels who, because of their number, power, and obedience to the commands of God, are spoken of as belonging to an “army.”
14. Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.
Peace to men of good will; i.e., peace and tranquility of mind and soul to all men, who, through the gracious mystery of the Incarnation, are shown to be objects of God’s good-will and pleasure. The word, ευδοκιας, here translated “good-will” is used in the New Testament to signify God’s good-pleasure in saving men through Christ.