Few things capture the spirit of Christmas better than a traditional nativity scene for many people. The star shines down on the serene baby Jesus, sleeping in a nice little manger with golden straw spilling out from the edges. He’s surrounded by Mary, Joseph, three wise men and several shepherds. They are all radiantly peaceful as they gaze in wonder at the newborn Christ child. Even the animals lying in their nice clean hay seem almost Spirit-filled as they look serenely upon the infant Savior. As the song goes, even when the cattle start lowing and the poor baby wakes, the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. It’s a cute, quaint scene, capturing the spirit of a cute, quaint holiday.
Now, I don’t mean to be a scrooge, and I’m not suggesting there’s anything heretical about this cute, quaint scene. I’m all for tradition – our family sets up a nativity every year. On the other hand, I think it’s important to realize that this scene is not completely accurate.
Try to imagine for a moment how things most likely unfolded the night Jesus was born. Mary and Joseph were probably teenagers when they traveled to Bethlehem, for in first century Jewish culture girls were usually engaged around the age of 12 or 13 and boys around 16 or 17. The two were undoubtedly exhausted from their long journey when they arrived at the inn, but all the rooms were taken. The two decided to bed down with the animals in the inn’s stable, which must have been an act of utter desperation (was Mary beginning to have contractions?). They really had no choice, since the possibility of Mary giving birth in public was (especially in first century Jewish culture) completely unthinkable.
Plus, an early church tradition tells us that the stable was a cave, a suggestion many scholars find plausible. So the young, unwed mother and her fiancé make their way to this cave, which was probably animal-packed if the inn was full. We should probably imagine these two exhausted and desperate teenagers squeezing past livestock, stepping over animal droppings, making their way to a corner of an unventilated, smelly, dimly lit cave so Mary can have her baby with some degree of privacy.
Suddenly the manger scene is beginning to look a bit less cute and quaint.
Now try to imagine what the actual process of giving birth might have been like. Even with the best preparation and medical assistance, the birthing process is painful, “messy” and, at times, terrifying. Yet, Mary and Joseph would have had little preparation, and likely no medical assistance. They were alone.
When the child was born, they placed him in a manger – which in this context can only refer to a trough the animals ate or drank from. This certainly couldn’t have been their first choice! It’s hard to imagine anyone remaining calm and serene given these circumstances.
If even half of these assumptions are accurate, they suggest a nativity scene that was much less cute and quaint than what we traditionally picture. We should imagine two desperate, exhausted teenagers passed out on bloody, manure-filled hay in a crowded, smelly, dark cave while their baby sleeps – and sometimes wails – in a slimy feeding trough. The original audiences of the Gospels would probably have imagined something like this, and it would have shocked them. I believe this is a central point of the story.
Our God uses his almighty power to dive into the worst this world has to offer. He dives into the shame of an unwed Jewish mother. He dives into the rejection of an already-full inn and the darkness, odor and inconvenience of an overcrowded stable. He dives into the desperation and fear of a young, ostracized couple. He dives into our humanity; and not humanity at our best, but humanity at our worst. He’s not a God who gravitates toward the cute and the quaint, but a God who immerses himself in our mess, our manure, our pain, our fear, our sin and our shame.
He is a God who takes on himself everything that is shockingly ugly and redeems it all – and by doing so, he reveals himself to be a God who’s shockingly loving and beautiful.
This Christmas if you set up a nativity scene, don’t worry too much about what it looks like. There’s a place for tradition, and I doubt many stores sell “realistic” manure-filled caves to put on your end table! But remember that our God isn’t cute and quaint. He is a God who’s beautiful because he takes on our shocking ugliness and lovingly transforms us.
And I’ll take that Christmas story over cute and quaint any day.
Originally published in the Minnesota Christian Chronicle, Volume #28 No.21, December 3, 2006