In due course the time came for Mary to give birth to her son; they named him Jesus, just as the angel had told them. There really is no point in my retelling of the story since it is quite possibly the most familiar story in the entire Scriptures for Christian and non-Christian alike. Even so, there are a couple of things I’d like to mention here…
First, you’ll notice that Luke’s account begins with a call by Caesar Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Empire. Augustus was the most powerful man in the world, and he ruled the mighty Roman Empire as a military dictator. As the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who had been assassinated in 44 BC, he was his heir and became the first Emperor of Rome in 27 BC and ruled until his death in 14 AD. Augustus was not his name; he had been born Gaius Octavian; Augustus was actually his self-given title and means “majestic”. He arranged for himself to be declared divine, and all of the people of the Empire were required to worship him…
So he demanded a census be taken so that he could be sure his treasury was collecting the full amount of tax from the people, and thus Mary and Joseph were required to travel to Bethlehem to be counted… and so that the prophecies of old would be fulfilled. I mention all of this because in Luke’s account, the greatest and most powerful man of all, the ruler of the greatest Empire, the one who would dare to claim divinity and demand worship, became nothing more than a footnote in the story of the birth of a “nobody”, a poor carpenter’s son by all appearances, in a nowhere little town on the edge of the Empire… who just happened to be God Incarnate.
Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor!
The child was born in a manger, just about the last place anyone would want their child to be born.
When Joseph and Mary arrived in the City of David on that fateful day, there was no room at the Inn and they found shelter in a “manger”. We think of this as being like a barn, a really nice barn, but it would have been more like a cave where animals are penned up. Such a place would not be charming, rustic or romantic, it would most likely have been a stinking hole, a place lower than low.
We depict the scene with radiating light, a kind of heavenly ambiance, but in addition to the stench, it also would most likely have been dark, cold and damp, infested with flies… yuk.
We often see paintings of Mary after giving birth looking as if she has just put on her best gown after a day at the spa, but if you have ever been a mother who just gave birth, of have been with a mother who just gave birth, you know very well that is a lie. Giving birth is nothing if not messy, sweaty and bloody, and mothers are not looking their best at that particular time.
In our songs about this amazing event, we see the Baby Jesus sleeping so peacefully; “not a cry he makes”… Seriously?
Later on a bunch of shepherds arrived to pay homage after an encounter with a squad of angels, and we depict them in their Sunday best as though shepherds were anything other than the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder of the time.
Yes dear reader, we romanticize the entire scene, and that is a great shame.
Look at what Paul said about Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
When Jesus was born in that manger, there were no divine trappings of any kind; it was cold hard reality. Jesus left glory behind entirely when He came to earth and He was just like we are in every way. He grew hungry, thirsty and tired, He sweated, He needed bathroom breaks, He had body odor, He caught colds… there was nothing about Him that set Him apart from anyone else in the physical sense; according to Isaiah, he wasn’t even good looking. In the manger, He entered this world naked; on the cross He left this world naked in the physical sense.
In between, He taught and healed and brought hope to Mankind that so desperately needs it and He did so without pretense or any worldly glamour or greatness.
The announcement of His birth wasn’t made to princes or nobles; it was made to a group of shepherds out in the fields at night. Shepherds, because of the nature of their work were considered to be at the very lowest rung of the social ladder, and as Jewish shepherds, there was little they could do to avoid being ceremonially unclean every day of their lives, and yet God announces the birth of His Son to them. Thus, unclean shepherds were the very first to worship the Son of God.
This Jesus, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas came into this world confounding all of the great people, the smart people, and the “beautiful” people. He continued to confound them throughout His ministry, and still does to this day, for God couldn’t care less about the glories of this world; He is the glory of heaven.