They were an odd bunch, that much we can gather.
The weary couple had come over 300 miles on foot at the whim of some far off official so they could be counted (and taxed). The tiny town that was their destination wasn't of much account either. Perhaps that's why there was a shortage of available lodging that night. In a last-ditch effort, they agreed to stay in the cave stable behind the small inn. You would think a pregnant girl would have received a little more sympathy ... but you'd be wrong on that account. So, in the smell of that stable she went into labor and, with no doctor to attend, her husband delivered the Child.
Meanwhile, in the hills around that little village, a rag-tag group of shepherds were dozing and chatting while their flocks, settled in for the night, either slept or ate in the field around them. Shepherds weren't known for their rank in society. They associated with mostly other shepherds as it was pretty much a full-time job (and by that I mean 24x7) to guard and care for your livelihood. I can only begin to imagine the terror that struck them as the nigh sky lit up like a thousand blazing campfires. Frankly, I'm shocked any of them could recover to the degree they would leave their sheep and run over the hill into Bethlehem as the angle suggested they do.
So, in the dead of night, in the dark, dank confines of a stable, the weary couple and the shepherds witnessed God entering the world. The account in Luke's Gospel says it was a pretty awesome sight to behold. The shepherds, unable to contain the pure joy ran off waking the town and everyone they could see. Mary, overwhelmed to have been chosen, just kept silent and thought about all that had transpired over the past nine months. Joseph finally had at least some of the answers he sought, even if he still didn't completely understand.
But our tradition also adds three more players to the Nativity pageant. History will note that they weren't actually there that night, but I'm going to err on the side of tradition and include them. These "magi" were very studious men. The 300-mile trek of Mary and Joseph paled in comparison with their journey. They saw signs in heaven, probably even before that first Bethlehem night, and gathered up their entourage to seek out the King. Their faith and diligence is honored in the story right along with the shepherds. They somehow knew (above all the rest of their knowledge) that history had changed.
This year, as my Advent candles burn and my simple, traditional tree sits in my house, I want more than ever to connect with that Child in a fresh way. God chose his entry into humanity as a humble, lower-class baby arriving to an exhausted couple in a dirty little cave. His first companions were animals and his first visitors the most common of commoners - shepherds. Yes, wise mean sought him out and risked much to see him - but the common thread among all who made a choice that first Christmas was the helpless baby in that manger. Wrapped in cloth, still fresh from childbirth, the Messiah began a life that would, in the end, bring Life to all of us.
Like the shepherds and the wise men, I want that Life now more than ever.