As you read this story, lean back, visualize it along the way, and imagine yourself in the scene. As you study of Jesus, note that His name, “Jeshua” in the Hebrew language, means “the one who rescues or delivers.” Put yourself right there in the experience. You are there. What do you literally smell, taste and see? What do you feel? This approach is one of the best ways to engage the Gospels. You are a participant. You are in the story. As you dig in, as with most scripture passages, there is often more to think about than what we initially observe.
As commanded by decree, imagine arriving in your ancestral town, Bethlehem, with your young, pregnant fiance. No wedding feast had taken place, so the pregnancy is a scandal in this culture. The news is out, and this small town is starting to talk.
No one will give you a room (the Biblical Greek word is better described as a “guest room,” not an “inn”). Not even your relatives will take you in. Think about this feeling of rejection. Culturally, most Jews of the time would find themselves in a quandary. The Hebrew culture and laws commanded that the stranger or refugee be taken in, but in this case, if you did, it would bring shame. How alone Joseph and Mary must have felt.
Jewish writings in the Babylonian Talmud portray Mary as “playing harlot with carpenters.” What a heroine she is in her faithfulness. Imagine how overwhelming it must have been. No wonder there was so much pondering in her heart.
The birth of Jesus Christ was glorious from heaven’s perspective, but it involved earthly shame.
Contextually, Judean homes at the time were built over a sort of mini cave or grotto that functioned as a protective holding pen for the family livestock (verse 7). This pen also served the purpose of providing heat from the animals’ bodies during the winter for the folks upstairs. You could call it a shallow basement. At least someone felt enough pity for Mary and Joseph to have offered these rugged, filthy accommodations. Mary and Joseph found themselves in a dark, damp, windowless place, where the livestock feed from a “manger,” a rectangular block of either stone or fashioned from mud and straw, laying on the floor.
Imagine the smell. How would you like to give birth, observe your loved one’s birthing, or be born in this setting? It’s a very difficult start for the King of Kings. It would be a setting filled with silence, but for animals feeding. It would be a place for fit for pondering. Wouldn’t you ask yourself, “How did I get myself into this?”
Perhaps in this busy Christmas season, we should seek out some solitude ourselves and ponder. Celebration will come (verses 13 and 14), but not yet.
The celebration arrives with the shepherds, who ironically often tended lambs for temple sacrifice. History informs us that shepherding was a despised profession, scorned as unclean by observant Jews. They were the street people of the time. It was marginalized people, living in cultural shame, to whom God announced the birth of our Savior. Imagine the shock and awe that you would feel to be visited by angels and to be invited to meet the Savior!
The Birth and Life of Jesus
The motif of shame continued through the life of Jesus as He ministered to “broken” people, and died a shameful death. This motif enriches the incredible “Lamb of God” who became flesh and lived among us. Does not this scene enhance the wonder and amazement at the uniqueness of the Advent of Jesus, the Messiah? Are you able to identify with the challenges faced by Joseph, Mary and Jesus?
The birth of Jesus reminds us that there is treasure to found in dark places. Our Father in Heaven says, “I am here and glad to be with you, I see you, I hear you, I can do something about this.” We have to just allow ourselves to hear these words and be comforted as only God can comfort. I have experienced this with loved ones divorcing, losing my job, struggling with my children’s disabilities, being falsely accused, and with health issues. Light does shine into darkness, often in very surprising ways.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus is able to empathize and connect with all of our struggles, not only because He is divine but because He became flesh. He knows our doubts, feelings, temptations and fears. Jesus, The Rescuer, has delivered us from our guilt, shame, and sin. He offers us unmerited favor and grace. Can you join the angels shouting, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace…?