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.
No: Christians think there is good and evil mixed up in all people, rich and poor. And while God has a special love and concern for the poor he’s not a trust-fund liberal who simultaneously romanticizes the poor and condescends to them. Christians have a duty to help the poor and to ensure that the weak get fair treatment, but sentimentalizing the poor and treating them simply as objects of pity is to dehumanize and demean them. Jesus seems to have come from a milieu that gave him the intellectual and social resources to argue on equal terms with the powerful and well connected — but that also gave him the ability to connect with the poor and the marginalized and to see them as real people. Not a bad mix, really.
In any case, Christmas doesn’t need to be sentimentalized or hyped; it is shocking and moving enough as it is. And today, the fourth day of Christmas, the traditional liturgical calendar has a powerful way of slapping us into serious reflection on the meaning of the event, jolting us out of our turkey comas and eggnog overdoses with an unforgettably grim story.
December 28 is not just the fourth day of the Christmas season in the traditional Christian calendar; it is also Holy Innocents’ Day, the day we remember the deaths of the babies in Bethlehem who were murdered at Herod’s command.
Matthew is our source (Matthew 2:1-18). The wise men following the star came to Herod, the puppet local ruler then installed in Jerusalem by the Romans. Their arrival created a stir at court; in an age when astrology was seen as a prestigious branch of science the news that the heavens were proclaiming the birth of a potential rival to the throne was not received well. Herod was already the King of the Jews; the idea that another one was getting born in some corner of his dominions did not please him. Herod asked the wise men to return to court when they found that baby so that “he might worship him too.” Being warned by a dream, perhaps reinforced by a belated attack of common sense, the wise men quietly slipped away after their visit to Bethlehem. This left Herod with no way to get rid of the dangerous baby with a ‘surgical strike’ against one particular child. In the absence of better information, he decided to kill every child in Bethlehem less than two years of age. Joseph was also warned in a dream, we are told; he and Mary took the child to Egypt and so missed Herod’s attack. Where the night had recently echoed with the songs of angels to the shepherds, the streets of Bethlehem filled with the cries of mothers as their children were taken and killed.
This was, Matthew tells us, the fulfillment of an ancient prediction of the prophet Jeremiah, “Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more.”
People complain about the commercialization of Christmas; maybe we should think more about the way our culture sentimentalizes and trivializes this event. The holiday isn’t about a red-nosed reindeer’s quest for social acceptance; it is about streets red with the blood of slaughtered innocents while the Holy Family flees into exile.
Get away from Christmas card sentimentality and some troubling questions come up. What kind of a God would get his own kid out of harm’s way while leaving so many other children so exposed? Why didn’t God give all the parents dreams? Or, more elegantly, why didn’t he send Herod a nice heart attack? On reflection, that turns out to be a new and very sharp way of asking one of the most basic questions that people quite justifiably ask about God: what kind of God could allow such evil and catastrophic things to happen? Why are innocents slaughtered and oppressed anywhere? If God is so powerful and he loves us so much, why are the historical records, and our daily newspapers, so full of violence, evil and oppression?
The classic Christian answer to this question, and here again standard Christianity makes a lot of sense to me personally, has two parts. The first is that God made us free; he did not want a universe of sock puppets praising and obeying him. He wanted a world, not a computer simulation; he has given us the freedom to be co-creators with him of the world we live in. But having given us real freedom, he and we are stuck with the consequences. Our choices are real, and they have real consequences for ourselves and for those around us. If God is serious about our freedom, he must abide by the choices we make.
But if God must take our choices seriously, he did not and does not have to let it end there. God, Christians believe, did not abandon us to the consequences of the choices that we and other human beings have made. Instead he determined to engage with us even more deeply; to enter history himself and to transform it from within. Christians believe that God launched a complex, multi-generational rescue operation, one that is still going on today. He will not renege on his commitment to make us free and intelligent co-creators of the world, but he will not let evil and ignorance have the last word; he will not allow our mistakes and shortcomings to separate us from his love.
The Christmas story is the moment when the rescue operation shifts into high gear. God leaves his throne, leaves heaven, and enters the world as a baby, entering the historical process himself as a human being to be shaped by human culture with all its shortcomings and limits; to share the joys, sorrows and temptations of human life in all their bewildering complexity; and to share the vulnerability of humans to betrayal, injustice, torment and finally death.
God gave up everything that he had to rescue us. He ran into the burning building to pull us out. He gave up his seat in the lifeboat to make room for someone else. That is what we are celebrating at Christmas, and that is what this story is about.
From the very beginning Jesus was subject to the same kind of contingencies that affect us all. His parents traveled in a peak season; he was born in a manger. And if he was rescued from Herod, it wasn’t to live happily ever after. Years later, as an adult, Jesus would walk, purposefully and with full knowledge of what he did, toward a fate as bloody and as cruel as the one that overtook the babies of Bethlehem at Herod’s command.
God became man and dwelt among us in order that in the fullness of time we can become like gods ourselves and go live with him. This is the shock of Christmas; this idea is why, thousands of years after it first happened, people are still locked up and killed because they believe in it.
The first verse of the famous Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” ends with these words: “The hopes and fears of all the years/Are met in thee tonight.”
The baby in the manger, the soldiers in the streets: hopes and fears clash in mysterious ways. That is what Christmas is about; in the next few posts we will try to think about what it means.