And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7)
Sometimes we’re so familiar with the story, that we don’t see its scandal. Mary was found pregnant out of wedlock in a culture where such shameful deeds were intolerable, and her “Holy Ghost” story would only intensify the ridicule. Instead of stoning his fiancée, Joseph decided to divorce her, but God stopped him in his tracks and convinced him that Mary’s ghost story was true. So the two would have to endure the shame once Mary’s belly could no longer be hidden.
Luckily, Rome called for a census, which required the couple to head out of town to their village of origin: Bethlehem. The tiresome journey provided a soothing respite from public shame. But once they entered Bethlehem, judgmental eyebrows were quickly raised, and the scandal continued. Popular renditions of the Christmas story reflect little historical truth. Jesus was probably not born outside of a commercial “inn”—despite our English translations. The word kataluma can refer to an ancient motel, but its usual translation is “spare room,” not “inn.” It’s also unlikely that there were any commercial inns in a small village like Bethlehem, so the translation “spare room” is probably what Luke intended. So, when Mary and Joseph sought shelter in their hometown of Bethlehem, they probably went to the house of a relative and asked to stay in their “spare room.”
“Sorry,” the relative said, no doubt eying Mary’s expanded waistline. “There’s no space in our kataluma. You’ll have to sleep out with the animals.”
“But Sir,” Joseph pleaded, “my wife is about to have a baby, and…”
“Fiancee! Joseph. She’s your fiancée, not your wife,” his relative interjected with obvious disapproval. “You can sleep out with the animals, if you want. But you cannot come under my roof.”
Extending hospitality to the unwed couple would also extend approval to their actions, and the whole village would soon find out. Joseph’s relative could not risk the shame. So Mary and Joseph remained outside in the courtyard where the animals were kept at night. And then came the pain. Contractions began to knife their way through Mary’s abdomen, while nervous excitement shivered up Joseph’s spine. The piercing pain pacified the stench of the excrement wafting through the air. And the shame of scandal, ridicule, and rejection was drowned out by the jubilant hope of a newborn child.
No doctor, no instruments, no sanitation, and certainly no painkillers. Childbirth in the first century was a risky event. But God endured the shame, the scandal, the risk in order to bring us back to Eden. As Mary grunted and pushed, heaven came crashing down to earth, and Joseph was there to receive him. First some hair and then the head. Shoulders and arms, legs and feet. The One who made the stars would pass from the uterus, down through the vaginal canal, and into Joseph’s nervous hands. His umbilical cord was cut, the blood wiped from his eyes, and remaining amniotic fluid extracted from his lungs. Up and down, the breath of life expanded his lungs, and an urgent wail filled the courtyard and spooked the sheep. After nursing the child to sooth his fear, Mary wrapped her son in cloth and with no crib nearby, she laid him in a feeding trough.
A feeding trough. The One who spoke the universe into existence, who reigns over the nations, who commands history, who created you and me in His own image—chose to be laid in a stone box where animals eat grain. In doing so, God’s relationship with humanity was brought to an uncanny level. The One who made the stars would suckle the breast of a 13-year-old unwed Jewish girl in a small village of a backwater province of the Roman empire. No pomp or prestige, parades or accolades, God stormed creation through a whisper—the illegitimate womb of a young Jewish girl. Shame, scandal, rejection, pain, fear, and humility clothed the birth of Christ, and this is exactly the way He planned it.
Because you cannot care for those who are suffering without entering into their pain. God cares for you. And he knows your pain. Turn to Him. He’s been there.