Now that Christmas Day is almost here I find myself rethinking about the way we celebrate the birth of Christ these days. I don’t mean all the commercialization of the holiday by merchants eager to bolster their sales. I mean all of the Nativity scenes on church lawns, the crèches in our homes, and the Christmas plays depicting the royal birth. These invariably include Mary and Joseph in bright, clean clothes, baby Jesus wrapped in cloth and peacefully sleeping in some sort of cradle, all sorts of cattle, shepherds in clean robes and three kings with crowns and royal robes and laden with expensive gifts. Quite a spectacle.
But what was the Nativity really like? I believe it was very much different than usually depicted and for very good reasons. Royal births usually take place in palaces, or these days, in modern hospitals and are announced to all the public in the worldwide media with great fanfare. But if Jesus had been born in the palace in Jerusalem he would never been able to relate to the common people the way that he did. In fact he would probably never have even met any of them. But Immanuel (God with us) entered the world in the rural hometown of his supposed father Joseph, a working class carpenter, some 10 kilometers south of the capital city. He was born in a stable because when his parents arrived in Bethlehem after traveling on foot and donkey back from Nazareth (some 110 kilometers to the north as the crow flies, but much longer by the footpaths they had to take) all of the hotels in town were full. There was no advance reservation system in place back then. The only option available to them for shelter was to share a stable with their donkey. There was no valet parking service available then either.
Mary and Joseph were undoubtedly covered with dust and sweat after their arduous journey and may or may not have had a chance to bathe and change clothes. They certainly had no deodorant or perfume and anyway were staying in an environment that smelled of hay, manure and donkey (no pleasant Christmas aromas of pine boughs, hot chocolate and spiced cider or gingerbread). Whether or not there were other animals present is somewhat problematical. It was a stable after all, not a barn. I doubt there were any cattle (they are not usually kept in stables). There might have been horses, but more likely, if anything there might have been other donkeys as most of the working class folk did not have horses. We are not told how big the stable was or what animals were housed there. But I find it unlikely there was the kind of menagerie found in some Nativity scenes.
When the baby was born he was swaddled in cloths in the manner of a newborn lamb and laid in a feed trough. It was apparently the only viable option to keep him off of the dirt floor of the stable. So the Son of God entered the world as the baby of a working class couple in a very crude, smelly and none too clean environment. Not what you would expect for a royal birth.
And as to fanfare, there was a spectacular display of that, including an angelic messenger announcing the birth, surrounded by a terrifyingly brilliant display of God’s glory and accompanied by a massive heavenly choir. However, the announcement was not made to the general public, but only to a handful of working class shepherds spending the night outdoors in the midst of their smelly flocks of sheep. After they recovered from their fright, the shepherds decided they had to go into town to see the newborn king for themselves. I don’t believe they took the time to fetch a change of clothes. When they had seen the baby they spread the word about what the angel had told them to the amazement of all in the neighborhood.
So the King of Kings was born to working class parents in a dirty, smelly stable with the only witnesses a group of working class shepherds. No kings present, no royal gifts. The news of his arrival no doubt spread throughout the surrounding area, but apparently never reached the palace in Jerusalem until somewhat later when a group of magi (that is, priests in Zoroastrianism and the earlier religions of the western Iranians per Wikipedia) stopped off in Jerusalem to inquire about the birth. “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” they asked. Adding “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2 NIV) This caused quite an uproar. When word reached King Herod he was disturbed and called all the chief priest and teachers of the law to ask them where the Messiah was to be born (He was apparently Biblically ignorant as are many who call themselves Christians even today). When told that the prophets had said the birth would take place in Bethlehem, Herod asked the Magi the exact time the star had appeared and then sent them on their way, asking them to alert him when they found the child so that he could worship him also. His real motive though was to find the child so that he could kill him and eliminate the threat he perceived to his throne.
However, after their visit to Bethlehem the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they returned home another way, bypassing the palace without stopping. This must have been some time after the birth occurred, because when Herod realized they were not coming back he issued orders to kill all of the boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area who were two years old and under.
So there were no kings at all at the Nativity stable and when the Magi (a special class of Zoroastrian priests endowed with occult knowledge, magical powers and power of divination who also interpreted dreams and performed divinatory rituals to portend the future – according to Hinduwebsite.com) finally arrived in Bethlehem, instead of a newborn infant, they would have found a one or two-year old toddler (living somewhere other than a stable I hope). Although they were not kings, they presented him with expensive gifts (gold, frankincense and myrhh) possibly signifying his kingship, his priestly role and prefiguring his death and anointing for burial. At any rate the fact that the Magi (representatives of a non-Jewish nation and religion) came to worship the king of the Jews presaged the offer of grace to all peoples of the earth, and their gifts hinted at the coming of Gentiles to offer themselves to Christ.
So it seems to me we have lost a good bit of the full significance of the Nativity, as well as the Epiphany in the way we celebrate them today. God was incarnated in very ordinary everyday circumstances, totally helpless and dependent on his parents for his care and feeding, much as any other human baby, and grew up with respect and obedience to his parents’ authority, to demonstrate that, with God’s help, we can live the way that Jesus did and as he calls us to do.
By the way there is another thing that has occurred to me in researching how the Nativity really went down. At the risk of alienating a whole lot of folks, let me say the concept expressed in the carol “Silent Night” seems ludicrous to me. How can it be a silent night when there is a vast heavenly choir in a brilliant cloud of glory announcing the royal birth? Bright yes, but calm and silent? And since I have opened that can of worms, how about the third verse of “Away in a Manger”. If baby Jesus was awakened by cattle lowing (or more likely a donkey’s braying) I believe he would signify his displeasure by crying loudly as any normal baby would. Newborns are seldom quiet as many sleep-deprived parents will tell you. If you’ve ever been a parent of a newborn baby you know what I mean. Come on! Get real!