There are many inaccuracies in the popular understanding of Jesus’ birth story. We don’t know how Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, no innkeeper condescendingly rejected the couple, and Jesus was born in a cave as opposed to the barn we all have in our nativity sets. Most of the errors in our Christmas stories are fairly insignificant but the wider misunderstanding in our Christmas stories has some real danger. For all the inaccurate elements of our nativity portrayals (not least of which is the obvious fact that Jesus was not Caucasian), the more significant inaccuracy is what is left out, not what we speculatively put into them. What’s missing is any kind of earthiness or grit in our depictions. The nativity was not a Thomas Kinkade painting or a Precious Moments sculpture; it was a lonely, solemn, gruesome, and frankly, painful night. Though this view of the nativity may seem to be less appetizing and actually more ordinary in a sense, it actually brings a great beauty to our appreciation of Christmas.
There is much we do not actually know about the nativity, after all it is only mentioned by two books of the New Testament; and Matthew’s account is brief. What we do know is mostly ordinary and if anything, lowly. The Gospel of Luke contains the most detailed account of Jesus’ birth and is in every bit in keeping with Luke’s theme of Jesus being the redeemer of the lowly and insignificant. It’s usually unwise to fill in the gaps of Bible stories, but if we choose to do so it is far more reasonable to do so in the vein of Andrew Peterson’s, Labor of Love as opposed to some of the lyrics in Away in the Manger or Silent Night. In the heavens, angels partied at the birth of the Messiah, but on earth the best most would assign to the Nativity was pity. The earthly host that greeted the newborn Jesus were entirely uneducated, lowly shepherds. The Magi and Herod’s soldiers would not come onto the scene for a few years.
What we see instead in the nativity is a poor couple from a lowly town having their child alone in humility. Mary and Joseph arrived in the town of Joseph’s ancestors to find no place was available for the small family to stay due to a population influx in little Bethlehem and probably little financial resources to their names. Mary and Joseph made their journey alone and tradition is that they stayed alone for the journey. Teenage Mary likely faced the daunting proposition that her delivery would be a lonely and helpless one. Most children in the first century were delivered by either a local midwife or an experienced female family member. Mary probably did not have that luxury. Church tradition suggests frightened Joseph had to deliver the baby Jesus as Mary had no one else to guide or comfort her through the painful ordeal. Mary did not skip the curse of Eve, she felt the child birth every bit as much as we would imagine any other virgin teenager would. The pain must have been excruciating and the emotions for all involved were at a peak. The birth of Jesus was in every bit a medical process and certainly lacked the sterile environment of a hospital or even Joseph’s home for that matter. Bodily fluids mixed with the odors of the animals surrounding them. God must have given the couple special grace to endure the pain and humility of birthing a child alone amongst cattle.
We can’t really be certain of much that happened outside of this turmoil filled cave, but the least likely scenario was that it was a particularly serene and silent night. Travelers filled the region for the sake of the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the normally quaint town of Bethlehem may have appeared to be not unlike Ocean City in peak season. Amongst all the possible crowds no one cared to help the parents of the king of the universe. We actually don’t even know that Jesus’ birth occurred at night at all, just that the shepherds saw the angel that night.
When Jesus was born no nurse was there to run him off and clean him in the hospital nursery, in fact there was no sanitary place to lay the baby Jesus. Faced with no alternative Mary and Joseph placed the newborn God-man in a feeding trough. The manger tends to be depicted as a rustic and delicate crib looking devise that was freshly cleaned and full of cozy straw, it is even depicted to be the perfect size for the little baby Jesus. A real manger in the first century B.C. would have been more disconcerting for a new mother. As loving parents one would imagine that Mary and Joseph went to painstaking efforts to make the manger a suitable resting place for their child, however it was an unsanitary trough used to feed dirty animals and no ancient farmer would have taken the time to regularly sanitize it. The prospect of putting our child in a manger would give modern parents nightmares and even long ago the threat of infections and diseases being passed to the newborn savior were very real. Again God’s grace can be seen in sustaining the family even in their lowly position.
What do we make of this grittier version of the Christmas story? Does this make the birth of Jesus less romantic or less worth remembering? Perhaps a better understanding does make the birth of Jesus a less family friendly story, but rightly understanding the circumstances of Christ’s birth only magnifies the wonder we can have at the birth of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The man most worthy of a majestic birth (God in the flesh) consciously chose the most humiliating birth one could imagine. Jesus did not just become incarnate to relate to the human experience, he chose to be unified with the most visceral, painful, humiliating human experience. Jesus became nothing even by human standards so we could have everything in our adoption as sons of God through Christ’s death in our place. This Christmas time don’t just be quick to point out the deficiencies in your child’s Christmas play (maybe don’t do that at all) but allow a more humiliating picture of the nativity bring you to worship your savior who took on all of it in love for His sheep.