Advent Thoughts from Dr. Ben Witherington III
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” Luke 2:6-7
Mary and Joseph went to Joseph’s ancestral home to register for the census. It was natural for Joseph to seek out his relatives, and try to stay with them, but the story suggests they were late arriving, and the house was already full of relatives, and suddenly Mary’s water broke, and she had to have a more private place to have her first child. In a normal first century Jewish house, there was a space in the back of the house for the beast of burden, so it would not be stolen. So Mary and Joseph were taken to the room in the house where there were not noisy relatives, and Mary gave birth to Jesus, placing him in a feeding trough used to feed the family ox or cow. This is a down-to-earth story that does not involve them trying to stay in a local inn and being rejected. There was no such inn in Bethlehem, as it was, as we used to say, “a wide place in the road” or “a one stoplight town.” If you were to compare this story to the Matthean version, Matthew says that considerably later, the holy family was visited by the Magi “while Mary and Joseph were at home.” It’s the same relative’s home in Bethlehem they were in to start with, and presumably those in the guest room were long gone after having registered. Mary and Joseph received these star gazers in the front of the house, in the guest room.
Did you notice that neither Luke 2 nor Matthew 2 mentions any animals in the room where Mary gave birth? Nor were the shepherds and the Magi there at the same time. For our traditional nativity scene we can thank St. Francis of Assisi, who was a big animal lover. He is the one who dreamed up the composite image of animals and the holy family and the shepherds and the Magi all crowded into one barn. Alas, there were no barns, and no animals involved. In fact, early Jews didn’t have barns. Probably, we are talking about one of the cave houses that have been excavated in Bethlehem, and Jesus was born in the back of a cave, as in fact you are shown today if you visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Why am I mentioning all this? Because the truth about the Christmas story matters, and later legends told about it obscure some of the important truths the story is telling. John Donne put it this way: “‘Twas much when we were made like God long before, but when God was made like us– much more.” Or consider what George McDonald said: “We were all looking for a king to slay our foes and lift us high, but thou cam’st a little baby thing that made a woman cry.” Jesus didn’t come to meet our expectations, or those messianic expectations of early Jews. He came to meet our needs. He was fully human while remaining the divine Son of God and he went through all the ages and stages of human life from birth to age 30.
We do not need to reinvent this story of salvation by adding various elements that aren’t in the Biblical story. In its plain and unvarnished form, it explains how God brought about the Good News of Great Joy for all people that God had come to save us in the person of his only begotten Son.