Things were grim in Palestine 2,000 years ago. The land was occupied by a foreign military superpower and was being governed by its puppet king, a paranoid murderous meglomaniac. At any hint of resistance, the Romans would brutally crush it, sometimes crucifying entire villages. Likewise their puppet king Herod tolerated no challenge to his power, regularly having members of his own family, including his children, put to death when he became suspicious of their loyalty. Life under such tyranny was economically oppressive as well. The combined taxes imposed by Rome and Herod could take as much as 90% of a worker’s income. And in addition to grinding poverty and an absence of social justice, the people had to deal with rampant diseases, for which there were no cures or treatments. The people struggled to survive.
Religion offered little to soothe the pains of such a life. The prophets, and seemingly God himself, had been silent for over 400 years. The religious establishment of the day policed a complex and often absurd code of behavior that governed almost every minute detail of life. The religious authorities taught that the long-awaited messiah would not come until the whole nation kept this impossible maze of laws perfectly. For the poor, the weak, women, children, the sick and the marginalized, the foreigners and those not born into the right ethnic and socio-economic status, for any outside the circle of the religious elite–in other words, for almost everybody–the prevailing religion seemed to offer little more than condemnation and judgment.
Meanwhile, in the temple in Jerusalem, an old man lingered on, praying earnestly in the belief that he would not die until he had seen the messiah.
And in a barn in Bethlehem, far from her home, a poor, frightened, unwed teenage girl was in labor.