So: they ‘wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.’ What is that supposed to be about?Manger is the French word meaning “to eat”; a manger is a place where you put hay and similar things for the animals in a barn to eat. The swaddling clothes were used to wrap up the limbs of newborns so they wouldn’t injure themselves by moving too much.Jesus was born in a shed, not at home, not in a palace, not in a hospital. (Not that anyone was born in a hospital in those days, or that any mothers had anesthesia.) At one level this is a message about the equality of everyone in God’s sight. He didn’t send Jesus into a palace. But when preachers talk about this scene as attesting to God’s identification with the poor, they get it wrong and they miss the real point of the story.Mary and Joseph weren’t staying in the stable because they were poor. The problem was that the inn was all sold out; Mary and Joseph happened to turn up at a ‘peak travel’ time without a reservation. The inn did the best it could by them, but with all the regular rooms committed, management could only offer the use of an outbuilding. There would have been plenty such in those days built to store supplies and house animals; between the animals that the inn would use for work or to provide food and those accompanying travelers, the various sheds and barns attached to an inn would see a lot of use.If the Christmas story had taken place in the United States today, the story might read that the hotel was full, so management found Joseph and Mary a spot in the security office of the parking garage. When the baby was born they would have wrapped it in Pampers and laid it on the desk.So far as we can tell, Jesus was born into something that corresponds, sort of, to the modern American concept of the ‘middle class’: more middle middle than upper middle. The family had money to travel as far as Bethlehem and could have paid for a room if there had been one. Joseph was a carpenter: a skilled workman at a time when such work was more valued than it is now. No one would mistake this family for a family of privilege or wealth, but in their home Jesus would be unlikely to go hungry and would have the chance to learn to read and get an education. It’s very hard to make comparisons between such different eras and societies, but one way for Americans to think about Jesus’ place in the life of his time would be to think of Joseph as something like a construction contractor from a town nobody has heard much about in a state people look down on. There might be a family story about some kind of genealogical connection with George Washington through Martha. The town librarian actually thinks there is something in it, but nobody, including Joseph, much cares.Jesus came from a place in his society that gave him the opportunities to learn about the cultural and intellectual history of his people and to acquire the basic intellectual skills of his milieu (though there is no evidence that he learned Latin or anything beyond a very basic Greek), but there’s no trust fund attached, no legacy at an ivy league college, and no one anywhere was ever impressed with his background.I hate to say this to the liberation theology folks, but Jesus doesn’t seem to have been one of the ‘truly’ dispossessed. He was a hick and an outsider, but he wasn’t particularly poor.Given this perspective, some of the ‘poor baby Jesus’ carols and sermons leave me cold. There’s a folk song that always rubs me the wrong way:
Jesus, Jesus rest your head
You have got a manger bed.
All the evil folks on earth
Sleep in feathers at their birth.