Here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming book on Grace titled Charis:
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)
We’re so familiar with the story that we hardly notice its scandal. But think about the scenario. 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. What would you say if your daughter or sister or girlfriend or wife came to you with such a tale? “No, really, it was God who did this. I’m telling the truth. See, I had this vision…” Yeah right.
Instead of stoning his fiancée, Joseph decided to divorce her. But God stopped him in his tracks and convinced him that Mary’s Holy Ghost story was actually true. So Mary and Joseph would endure the shame together once Mary’s belly expanded into evidence.
Luckily, Rome called for a census, which required the couple to leave Nazareth and travel to their village of origin: Bethlehem. The rugged journey provided a soothing respite from public shame, no doubt. But once they entered Bethlehem, more judgmental eyebrows were raised and the scandal continued.
Popular renditions of the Christmas story reflect little historical truth. Jesus was most likely not born outside of a commercial “inn”—despite our English translations (Luke 2:7). The word kataluma can refer to an ancient motel, but it usually refers to a “spare room” of a house, not an “inn.” There probably weren’t any commercial inns in a small village like Bethlehem, so the translation “spare room” is the best translation of the word kataluma. So, when Mary and Joseph sought shelter in their hometown of Bethlehem, they almost certainly went to a house of a relative and asked to stay in their “spare room,” their kataluma.
“Sorry,” the relative said, eyeing 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. “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 it started. Contractions knifed their way through Mary’s abdomen, while nervous excitement shivered up Joseph’s spine. The piercing pain pacified the thick stench of animal excrement that oppressed the cool winter air. And the shame of rejection and ridicule was drowned out by the jubilance of a newborn child.
No doctor, no instruments, no sanitation, and no painkillers. Childbirth in the first century was a risky event. But God endured the shame, the risk, in order to bring us back to Eden.
As Mary grunted and pushed, heaven came crashing down to earth and Joseph received the Son of God, the snake-crushing Messiah, the illegitimate child into his arms. First some hair, and then the head. Shoulders and arms, legs and feet. The One who made the stars, would pass through the birth canal and into Joseph’s nervous hands. Joseph slashed and tied the umbilical cord, wiped the blood and birth away from the child’s eyes, and assisted his helpless son to expel the remaining fluid from his lungs. He cradled this eight-pound miracle and watched the breath of life expand the baby’s chest, and an urgent wail pierced the courtyard and spooked the sheep. After nursing the child to sooth his fear, Mary wrapped her son—God’s 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 box where animals eat grain. The One who formed galaxies and molded the earth would suckle the breast of a 13-year-old unwed Jewish girl in a small village of a backwater province of the Roman Empire.
Jesus is a religious leader, but the religious leaders didn’t want him.
Jesus is a king, but the kings didn’t want him.
Jesus is a revolutionary, but the revolutionaries didn’t want him.
Jesus is the perfect human, but humanity didn’t want him.
You didn’t want Him, but He wanted you.
We are hunted and loved by an Ezekiel 16, tent-dwelling God with a beautiful tattoo. And His hunt landed him in a feeding trough.