I recently came across a little book about Christmas titled Christmas Uncut: What Really Happened and Why It Really Matters by Carl Laferton.
The title caught my attention. Did the author uncover some unknown historical account of the birth of Jesus? Did one of the magi take notes, and someone found them stashed and preserved in a cave somewhere in Judea? I wanted to know, so I checked it out. (It was a quick, easy read with lots of interesting information, and it would be a good apologetic to share.)
Lafterton says this in his introduction:
"We've turned Christmas history into a nativity play. I don't want to be a spoilsport. I've enjoyed watching my own kids play a shepherd, an angel, a sheep, and an alien (yes, really)—though never, sadly, a king. Nativity plays are part of the whole Christmas experience, along with desperate last-minute shopping and sending cards to people who you didn't make the effort to see last year and won't make the effort to see next year either. It's just that the real Christmas is much more interesting than what we've turned it into. It's worth rescuing and retelling. So let's begin. At the first Christmas, Mary wasn't waving to her parents in the front row. The angels weren't wearing last year's tinsel stuck onto old white sheets. Joseph's dad wasn't annoying a shepherd's grandma by standing up in front of her to record his son's big moment. What there was at the first Christmas was scandal. Controversy. Massacres. Mystery." (p.3)
Controversy, massacres, and mystery—that sounds like the description for a new Netflix series. I had to check it out.
Most of us like Christmas plays, especially if our children or grandchildren are in them. They're fun and usually quite entertaining. I'm not sure how many schools have plays featuring a nativity scene these days; they're more likely to focus on holiday-themed images such as Santa Claus, snowmen, and reindeer. There may also be some holly and a Christmas tree, and you may even see an elf here or there.
Plus, most nativity scenes feature a cozy little shelter where everyone is warm, dry (and usually clean and well-dressed). The kids are dressed as animals (who tend to have the fewest lines, if any) and are supposed to be looking on in admiration and awe, but they're more likely fiddling with their costumes or acting up with one of the other animals. It's all very nice, clean, and orderly.
Based on what you know about the real story and using your imagination a little, think about what a play might look like if it accurately captured the scene as you think it might have actually looked like there in Bethlehem, in the place they were staying, when Jesus was born. It can be challenging since our minds are full of the traditional depictions we've seen in plays, movies, and art.
Let's assume they were probably staying in some livestock-keeping area adjoining a home, either a stable or a room at a house reserved for that purpose in the winter. The latter is what scholar Dr. Michael Kruger thinks is the most likely scenario:
Since Joseph could find no spot in the inn, the reasoning goes, he must have been forced to stay in the stable. Indeed, every nativity scene ever created places Jesus in a barn of sorts.
But the text doesn't say he was born in a barn. It only says Mary "laid in him in a manger" (Luke 2:7). Although that might seem to suggest a barn, it was common for mangers to be kept in the main room of village houses during this time period. Why? Because the animals were often housed just a few feet away in an adjacent room.
It seems likely, then, that Mary gave birth to Jesus while they were staying at the home of Joseph's relatives in Bethlehem. But the room in which they stayed—likely a tight guest room or hastily added chamber—couldn't accommodate a birth. So, Mary had to give birth in the larger family room and lay Jesus in the nearby manger.
Dr. Tim Chaffey of Answers in Genesis, in his "Clearing up Misconceptions" series, holds similar views:
Joseph and Mary probably stayed with Joseph's relatives in Bethlehem, but because of the large influx of people, the house would have been crowded and the kataluma (guest room) was full. Consequently, Joseph and Mary would have been relegated to living in the lower level of the house. . .
Archaeologists have excavated first-century homes from the Judean hill country. They have discovered that the upper level served as a guest chamber while the lower level was divided—with one portion for living space and another where animals could be brought in at night to protect them from cold and theft. . .
There is biblical support for the concept of animals being kept in the house. The infamous account of Jephthah (Judges 11) states that he planned to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house upon his return. Apparently, he expected an animal to come out of his house. Little did he know that his daughter would come out to greet him before any of the animals came out. So there seems to be biblical precedent for keeping animals in the house.
This is where the manger comes into play. Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in the lower level of a crowded house, in which some of the animals had been brought in for the night. She then wrapped Jesus in swaddling cloths and laid Him in the manger (feeding trough).
I haven't spent much time in a room full of farm animals, or a room for farm animals, for that matter. But things were probably a little weird for a place to give birth. Although the family (if there was one) may have tried to tidy it up, it was probably dirty, smelly, and generally not very pleasant by our standards. There may or may not have been animals around (since none are mentioned in the gospel accounts, even though they often appear in Christmas plays).
It may not have been a cave or a stable, but it was certainly an inauspicious nativity for the Son of God!
Mary and Joseph had traveled a long way over several days, on foot or perhaps with the help of a donkey, since Joseph was probably too poor to own horses (although that's something else that isn't mentioned in the Bible). So, they were tired and dirty, and there was no indication of what kind of sleeping or bathing facilities they had access to. We might assume they were minimal at best; perhaps a water trough? Yuck.
Then there was the birth itself. This was not an in-hospital or at-home birth, with a tidy room well stocked with all the necessary supplies and trained and licensed medical professionals on hand to monitor and help. It's hard to imagine how difficult and risky it would have been for Mary to deliver in these circumstances. But in the Christmas plays, Mary looks like she's on vacation at a nice hotel, clean, rested, and well-dressed, as she gazes affectionately at the child lying in a cozy little manager full of fresh hay.
By the way, I don't know what comes to your mind when you think "farm animal feeding trough", but the word that comes to me is nasty. It certainly wasn't a "Graco Remi All-in-One Convertible Crib with Drawer and Changer (Espresso) – JPMA-Certified Convertible Crib with Storage Drawer, Attached Changing-Table with 3 Drawers" (retails for $500 on Amazon).
Still, it was into this scene—crowded, dirty, messy, noisy, and dangerous—that God the Father sent his beloved Son.
It certainly wasn't what the Jews of that day expected as an entrance for the coming Messiah. And it certainly was nothing like a neat, clean, colorful, and tidy nativity scene in a child's Christmas play. If I was a Jew living there at the time and someone told me that this baby was the Messiah, the promised King of Israel, I would have been skeptical, to say the least. The whole scene was very un-Messiah-and-King-like.
Jesus, the Creator (Col. 1:16), the Eternal Word (John 1:1-5), who was called "Immanuel, God with us" (Matt. 1:23), entered the world in a very messy situation. It was probably dirtier, stinkier, and more confusing than we can imagine. It was a messy room (an animal shelter of some kind), in a messy town (a small town in the middle of nowhere), in a messy country (occupied by the Romans and ruled by an evil king), in a messy world (all kinds of really bad stuff going on). It was all a big hot mess, just like our world today.
But God sent Jesus into that world anyway. What's more, the Son willingly stepped off his heavenly throne and, in full obedience to the Father's will, came to us as an infant lying in a dirty manger:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8, ESV)
It tests our sensibilities to think God would have done it this way. I can think of many ways for God to send his Son to earth that would have been a lot more glorious than this. (I have a picture of a horse-drawn baby carriage, shining as bright as the sun and escorted by thousands of angels singing "Hark We Herald Angels Sing" as they descend out of heaven to land in the town square in Jerusalem.)
Yet, despite all the inglorious messes, his coming was glorious just the same. While there was no horse-drawn baby carriage (but there were some angels around), the Son of God had come. The unimaginable had happened at the most unlikely time and circumstances: The eternal Word, the Son, comes in the form of a man. Heb. 1:3 says,
"…He [Christ] is the radiance ['effulgence' in KJV] of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and upholds the universe by the word of his power…" (ESV); "…the Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being…"(NIV); "…and He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature…" (NASB)
So, amid this worldly mess, we find the newborn Christ, whom the apostle Paul calls "the brightness of His [God's] glory." The Bible usually expresses God's glory through a blinding, dazzling light. Yet the apostle here asserts that the very brilliance of divine glory is found in the second person of the trinity lying in the straw in a dirty, dark, smelly animal shelter. Amazing!!
Furthermore, this same Christ, who's now seated and reigning next to his Father in heaven, has entered into our messy world and lives with the divine light of salvation. In 2 Cor. 4:6, the apostle Paul writes,
"For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of Christ in the face of Jesus Christ." (ESV)
On a dark night in Bethlehem, into the messiness of an animal shelter, into messy culture and society, came Jesus, who would be a great light that would shine into the darkness in the hearts of all those who would believe.
And this same Christ will one day enter our world again, but this time, he will come again in power and glory. Not in a horse-drawn baby carriage but in his divine power and might. And then, finally, all the 'messiness'—all the sin and suffering and death of this world—will be destroyed forever. We know this is true because not only is Jesus God-incarnate, who was born in an animal shelter, but he is also the atoning Savior who broke sin's power by His resurrection from the dead. As a result, the Bible says,
"We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells." (2 Peter 3:13, ESV)
It won't be a messy place anymore!
This is the message of Christmas and the significance of what happened in Bethlehem in that messy room two millennia ago—messy world, glorious Messiah.
Merry (messy) Christmas!