What Jesus's Birth Was Really Like
We are all familiar with the haunting simplicity of Luke’s description of the birth: “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son” (vv. 6, 7a).
In Bethlehem the accommodations for travelers were primitive. The eastern inn was the crudest of arrangements. Typically it was a series of stalls built on the inside of an enclosure and opening onto a common yard where the animals were kept. All the innkeeper provided was fodder for the animals and a fire on which to cook.
On that cold day when the expectant parents arrived, nothing at all was available, not even one of those crude stalls. And despite the urgency, no one would make room for them. So it was probably in the common courtyard where the travelers’ animals were tethered that Mary gave birth to Jesus, with only Joseph attending her. Joseph probably wept as much as Mary did. Seeing her pain, the stinking barnyard, their poverty, people’s indifference, the humiliation, and the sense of utter helplessness, feeling shame at not being able to provide for young Mary on the night of her travail—all that would make a man either curse or cry.
If we imagine that Jesus was born in a freshly swept, county fair stable, we miss the whole point. It was wretched—scandalous! There was sweat and pain and blood and cries as Mary reached up to the heavens for help. The earth was cold and hard. The smell of birth mixed with the stench of manure and acrid straw made a contemptible bouquet. Trembling carpenter’s hands, clumsy with fear, grasped God’s Son slippery with blood—the baby’s limbs waving helplessly as if falling through space—his face grimacing as he gasped in the cold and his cry pierced the night.1
My mother groaned, my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt.2
Plunged into a Huddle of Animals
It was clearly a leap down—as if the Son of God rose from his splendor, stood poised at the rim of the universe irradiating light, and dove headlong, speeding through the stars over the Milky Way to earth’s galaxy, finally past Arcturus, where he plunged into a huddle of animals. Nothing could be lower.
Luke finishes the picture in verse 7: “She . . . wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Mary counted his fingers, and the couple wiped him clean as best they could by firelight. Mary wrapped each of his little arms and legs with strips of cloth—mummy-like. No one helped her. She laid him in a feeding trough.
No child born into the world that day seemed to have lower prospects. The Son of God was born into the world not as a prince but as a pauper. We must never forget that this is where Christianity began, and where it always begins—with a sense of need, a graced sense of one’s insufficiency. Christ, himself setting the example, comes to the needy. He is born only in those who are “poor in spirit.”
The Son of God was born into the world not as a prince but as a pauper.
A Paradigm for God's Work in Our Lives
The incarnation provides a marvelous paradigm for Christ’s work in our lives. Every Advent season, and hopefully at other times as well, we are brought again to the wonder of the incarnation. See the swaddled Jesus, lying in the feeding trough in the stable, the birthplace of common livestock. Look long and hard with all your mind and all your heart. From early times the paradox of the incarnation has given birth to mind-boggling expressions.
St. Augustine said of the infant Jesus:
He is wisely speechless.3
Lancelot Andrewes, who crafted much of the beautiful English of the Old Testament in the King James Version, preaching before King James on Christmas Day 1608, picked up on Augustine’s idea and described Christ in the manger as:
the word without a word.4
He is in his person the Word of God!
Luci Shaw, in her beautiful poem “Mary’s Song,” says:
Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled
a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.5
The one who asked Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding . . . when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band” (Job 38:4, 9) now himself lay wrapped in swaddling clothes.
The wonder of the incarnation! The omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God became a baby!
1. Steven Mosely, “When God was Made Vulnerable,” Moody Monthly, December 1983, p. 25, provides the source of some of these phrases descriptive of Christ’s birth.
2. Michael Mason, ed., William Blake, Oxford Authors Series, “Infant Sorrow,” from “Songs of Innocence and Experience” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 276.
3. His Magazine, December 1981, vol. 42, no. 3, on back inside cover.
4. Great Sermons on the Birth of Christ, comp. Wilbur M. Smith (Natick, MA: W.A. Wilde Co., 1963), p. 140.
5. Luci Shaw, Listen to the Green (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1971), p. 66.
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