The topography of Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth suggests that the “stable” in which Jesus was born was really more of a cave, one used by shepherds as protection from the elements for themselves and their animals. Much the way it is in more modern barns today, if hay was present it was there to serve two main purposes: as food for the animals, and as cover for what the animals did after they ate. So the cave may have offered some protection to this newly formed holy family, but this was a smelly, dirty place, the kind of place any earthly king, including those of us who would enthrone ourselves, would likely avoid as a place of birth.
Yet clearly, God did choose this place, and He chose it quite intentionally. This place among the shepherds is God telling us “I, myself, will shepherd my people” (Ezekiel 34:15). This borrowed cave foretells where Jesus will be laid after his sacrificial offering, signalling an unbroken circle of salvation.
That said, the smell of the birthplace wasn’t the only less than glamorous aspect of Jesus’ birth. Despite the favorite seasonal hymn, this holy night was a far cry from a silent or peaceful night. While angels heralded and shepherds made haste to the cave to give glory to God, a budding rock star banged out his drum solo nearby, an unusual “gift” for an infant, perhaps only topped later by some starstruck guests traveling in a caravan from countries to the east. All told, Jesus’ birth was loud, smelly, and surrounded by chaos.
And once again, the plan plays itself out exactly as God intended. Jesus enters our chaos fully human, to participate wholly in our humanity. He did so because it is through his own humanity that Jesus is able to take on our sins, and die for us as our Savior.
Jesus even demonstrates his human intention through the method of his birth. After all, Jesus proves on several occasions that he is able to appear suddenly in places when he wishes. For example, after feeding the 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes, the Apostles crossed Lake Tiberias in a boat without Jesus, who suddenly appeared on the other side of the lake (John 6:24-25). It is, then, plausible that Jesus could have simply appeared to us on earth. Or, after being carried for nine months in the womb, and especially after the arduous ten-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem that ended with Mary being told that she had to sleep in a barn, it might have been a nice gesture to his mother if Jesus had chosen to merely appear outside of her womb. However, in both gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:-20, Matthew 1:18-25), it is pretty clear that Mary gave birth to Jesus in the usual, human way, and as such, with all that accompanies one human body departing the womb of another.
This is our Christmas story: Christ entering our self-hewn chaos as an infant, helpless and dependent on the love of others, willing to humble himself not only to become one of us, but to do so in a messy, stinky place. This is our savior: meeting us in the loudest, the most rank, the most uncomfortable, and the most unwanted places of our lives with the grace of an unimaginable love. This is the Word made flesh: manifesting his glory as the Son of God in utter humility. And while the surroundings may have been more spectacle than spectacular, the generous love and sacrifice is astonishing, fulfilling God’s plan for us. This is truly an awe-inspiring birth. This is the full joy of Christmas.
Merry Christmas! Come, let us adore him!