I tend to see the Christmas story only through Western eyes. I think that Mary and Joseph rolled into town after she started labor and knocked on doors while she awkwardly perched on the donkey, panting and sweating – womb contracting. A few hours later, they wipe off the slimy newborn with some hay, wrap him in whatever they had, put him to sleep in a trough, and then lie back, exhausted, until a bunch of motley shepherds show up to the teeming barn, followed closely by three rich dudes bearing gifts. Then morning dawns and they all disappear into the dust of my imagination.
More likely: The census had all sorts of people traveling during festival time. In this, God sovereignly used the most powerful men of the time to fulfill his will and prophecies. Bethlehem must have positively swarmed with locals and those long gone from their hometown, busting at the seams. Relatives in the town the locals affectionately called the House of David probably warmly accepted Joseph (and Mary), being of the lineage of David.
In my western-centric narrowmindedness, I forget that houses and homes are configured differently across the globe and throughout time. In that culture common practice housed the livestock – valuable assets – inside for both protection and warmth. Regardless of the setup, this was in very close proximity to the normal living quarters.
I think of when all of my family descends on my parents’ house – straight up chaos. People everywhere – an invasion of beds, luggage, and noise. A cacophony of children shrieking, dishes rattling, laughing, and shouting. The ‘inn’ or guest rooms are maxed out but we’d make room for more, somehow, if needed.
We don’t know how long they had been in town before Mary went into labor. But someone had the foresight to make sure she at least had cloths to wrap the newborn. And they laid him in a manger. I’m not sure I’ve ever stopped to consider what that meant beyond my ignorant judgement of the conditions. Is it that different from putting my baby niece sleep in the closet of my one-bedroom apartment when my sister and her family came to visit while the rest of us divvied up the bed, couch, and air mattress? Or from the friend who offers her dry bathtub as a safe, quiet place for a visiting child to sleep?
However, my favorite part of re-examining the story in light of Middle Eastern culture is the role that the shepherds played. They had always just been a part of the backdrop that I just glossed over. Angel, check. Livestock, check. Scruffy fellows carrying staffs, check. Manger, check.
But this part is special. Their presence in these first dawning hours of our Savior’s birth into his creation speaks of something beautiful, topsy-turvy, intimate. These men would have had no other occupation or education – our modern day equivalent of minimum wage, manual laborers. Marginalized. Overlooked. Disregarded.
And yet, an angel shows up to give them the good news. The long-awaited, long expected Redeemer foretold for generations had finally entered into time and they were the first to know. Did they fear because the rest of society didn’t take them seriously? So while they wanted to see this great wonder did they fret that this new royal family would scorn their adulations?
But God, in tenderness, quelled their doubts and apprehensions with signs that would speak to them in their station. They would find the Messiah, wrapped in the same cloths the shepherds used for their own newborns, in an ordinary house, bustling with commonplace life – a life and lodgings familiar to them – not a lofty palace.
God meets us where we are.
He doesn’t require us to clean up before we encounter him. He draws us to him when we know nothing about him, spiritually disregarded and poor. He finds us in our fields, in the midst of our everyday lives.
God, who creates all things, sustains all things, reconciles all things, gives us a sign that the Good News is meant for us.
The gift of his Son, planned for me before the foundation of the world.
We don’t simply celebrate a birth at Christmas. We celebrate God’s intentions breathing life, his purposes coming to fruition, his redemption climaxing, all in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. God made flesh. The image of the invisible God. “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:17, 19-20)
Based on Luke 2
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