Yesterday, we looked at why the gospels make such a point of saying that Jesus was born of a virgin. But there is more to the story than the absence of a biological father. What kind of home was Jesus born into? Who were Mary and Joseph, this couple who go to Bethlehem, can’t get a room, have the baby and ‘wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.’ What is that supposed to be about?
To begin with the actual scene, ‘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. There are some today who believe there are benefits in this ancient and widespread practice, but it would be extremely unusual to hear contemporary Christians, even fundamentalists, arguing that this was the “biblical” way to treat infants and that every baby ought to get the same treatment. Compared to other world religions, Christianity is much less wedded to a set of cultural practices or ritual observances defined by its holy books; the “imitation of Christ” has almost always been understood as an imitation of his moral qualities rather than as a call to eat what he ate or wear what he wore.
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. Something we moderns often forget about history is that until the 19th century childbirth everywhere was incredibly painful and incredibly dangerous. (It still is across many poor countries today.) Women giving birth entered a dark and terrifying tunnel of danger and pain whose presence shaped the life of rich and poor alike in ways that people living in modern, technological society can never fully comprehend.)
At one level the whole born in a manger thing is a message about the equality of everyone in God’s sight. He didn’t send Jesus into a palace. But when enthusiastic 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. Poor people didn’t travel. 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 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 affluent than the average worker (and much better off than the poor), but not particularly fancy or polished. The family had connections; Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was married to a priest who participated in the temple rituals. 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. A lot of people didn’t eat regularly or go to school in those days and the really poor people were slaves.
And there was the whole ‘house of David’ thing. The New Testament makes a big point of identifying Jesus with the line of the ancient Israelite king. David, the Goliath-killing shepherd of Jewish folk tales and Biblical narratives, was the great national hero. He was the long ago ruler who established Jerusalem as the national capital and founded the dynasty of Jewish kings who would reign about 400 years before the city fell to Babylon around 600 years before Jesus’ birth. Joseph’s membership in the house of David didn’t mean he was a pretender to the throne. It certainly didn’t make him a member of Jewish nobility or give him any titles or estates. The house of David by then had been out of power longer than it had ever ruled Jerusalem, and when the Jews had risen in a successful revolt against the Greeks, it had been the house of the Maccabees, not the house of David that had led the new revolutionary war. Being a member of the house of David might be like someone in America today who can trace the family tree back to some English king in the Wars of the Roses or before. It is more a conversation piece and bit of family lore than a fact of any day to day significance.
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 Joe the Plumber. He’s a contractor with a small construction business from a town nobody has heard much about in a state conceited people look down on: Possum Holler, Arkansas, maybe, or Smallville, Kansas. There might be a family story about some kind of genealogical connection with George Washington through Martha. The town librarian is an amateur genealogist and actually thinks there is something in it, but nobody, including Joe the Plumber, 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 at most a very basic Greek), but there’s no trust fund attached, no legacy at an Ivy League college, and there is not one word in the Bible that suggests that anyone anywhere was ever impressed with his background. He was a smart hick — not a tramp or a hobo, but he had a bad accent and the wrong friends.
This doesn’t please the liberation theology folks, but Jesus doesn’t seem to have been one of the ‘truly’ dispossessed. He was 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. He takes the poor and the marginalized seriously, and judges us all by how we treat them, but God’s idea of poverty is complex. We are all poor in his eyes, lacking things much more necessary than money, and God doesn’t sentimentalize anyone.
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.
The Christmas story is one of those lilies people can’t help trying to gild. We’d like this to be pretty and sentimental tale. But today, the fourth day of Christmas and the third after the present orgy beneath the tree, is the day that the traditional liturgical calendar tries to slap 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.
Church calendars mark December 28 as 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 for the story (Matthew 2:1-18), and the three wise men are the unwitting bearers of doom. The three kings or wise men who famously gifted the baby Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh also set off a train of events that resulted in the most chilling story of mass murder in the New Testament.
The three wise men mentioned in the Bible seem to have been astrologers; it might be better to call them ‘astrologists’ because astrology in their time combined elements that today we would call science with what today would be called balderdash. Keeping track of the tides, the seasons and the calendar were all things wise men used to do. Keeping track of and learning to predict the movements of the sun and the moon helped early civilizations predict tides and winds (especially because the seasonal trade winds and monsoons of the Indian and Arabian oceans were vital to trade). The wise men (and women) of old made a great intellectual leap when they realized that the movement of heavenly bodies influenced events on the earth. They may not have understood gravity, but they figured out that there was some kind of connection between the movement of the moon and the state of the tides. If they also believed that the same invisible rays from the stars and the planets that brought the changing seasons and raised the tides also controlled the tides of human history, they are not the only intellectuals in world history to have pressed a theory past its breaking point or to have assumed that correlation and causation are the same.
In any case, the wise men are said to have been ‘following a star’ that led them to the place where Jesus was born. There are many rival theories about what exactly the wise men were following and when, but based on what we know about astrological thinking, it’s possible to make some reasonable conjectures. The sun, the moon and the five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) visible to the unaided human eye appear to move in two basic ways. They move from east to west across the sky every day and night, but they also appear to move against the background of the stars and constellations that make up the background of the night sky. The sun appears to move through the 12 signs of the zodiac over a year; the moon makes the same journey every month. The visible planets are more complicated and (due to the way their orbits around the sun affect their position as seen from earth) they seem to be moving erratically through the zodiac. Sometimes they go ‘forward’ in the same direction as the sun and the moon; sometimes they seem to stand still, and sometimes they seem to move the other way.
Additionally, because the sun, the moon and the visible planets all seem to move at different speeds, they often form ‘conjunctions’ and come very close together. The most dramatic is an eclipse in which the moon gets between the sun and the earth, but conjunctions involving two or more planets in the night sky can also be striking. Astrologers from ancient times saw a special significance in these conjunctions, and the ‘star’ that the wise men were following is generally thought to have been a conjunction of planets associated with royalty and the Jewish nation that appeared to be moving westward through the night skies. The wise men followed this “star” on its westward journey until they reached the lands of the Jews, where they went to visit King Herod in hope of further information.
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 and he had every intention of being succeeded by members of his own family; the idea that another claimant 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.”
While it is impossible at this distance to be certain about what happened next, it would appear that the star the wise men were following stopped moving in the heavens as they reached Bethlehem. Either the conjunction began to break up as the planets separated or, more dramatically, the two or more planets in the conjunction stopped their apparent movement in the heavens so that the star itself appeared to become stationary. Taking this as a sign that they had reached their goal, the wise men looked around Bethlehem and found that Jesus had been born at the right time in the right place.
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 without stopping off to tell the king exactly which child they had found. This left Herod, whose agents presumably had kept track of the general movement of this caravan of conspicuous strangers as far as Bethlehem, 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. Herod’s goons arrived in Bethlehem and set about their work. 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 just 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.
God is serious. When he made us, he meant it. We are real, and what we do counts. 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 the Germans vote for Hitler, Hitler is who they and their neighbors will get. If God is serious about our freedom, he must abide by the choices we make.
God could have made a world without Herods — if he had made a world without real moral actors and autonomous beings. He could have made a G-rated, namby pamby world like “Teletubbies” where nothing really bad ever happens. But it would be a toy world, not a real place with real people in it. God chose to make us real, we use our freedom as we do, and the result is the history we all read about and the cruelties, hypocrisies and moral failures that we all see and know.
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, our shortcomings and even our crimes and our atrocities to separate us from his love if there is any way at all he can reach us.
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. He was so determined to make us real that when we got in trouble he lost himself to find us. 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.
Right at the beginning of his life on earth, Jesus was at the place where hope and death meet. That is what childbirth was in the bad old days when doctors and midwives alike weren’t able to do all that much at the crisis of birth; death and birth were intimately linked for all human babies, and not just the Christ. Jesus emerges into history, this stinking, reeking cesspit of blood and crime and oppression in which, somehow, human love and talent and striving never quite die. Before he was through, the whole weight of history would fall upon him.
God paid an obscene price in his determination to people the world with real people and autonomous moral actors rather than sock puppets. That is what we really celebrate at Christmas. Yes, the starstruck shepherds hear the angels and gather quietly around the baby in the manger; but then the soldiers — some, perhaps, the brothers or the cousins of the shepherds in the hills — will also come to Bethlehem and do their best to kill him. Still God came, knowing that the soldiers would get him in the end and do their worst.
Holy Innocents’ Day strips the sentimentality of the season away. This is the shock of Christmas; God’s gifts aren’t like a pair of warm mittens or a toy choo-choo train. They shake the foundations of the world. One the one hand, God gives us the terrible power of moral freedom with which we have made a hell on earth. On the other, he gives us himself as a willing sacrifice to redeem us and bring us into an ever closer and more intimate relationship with him. It is an unbearable, unlimited love: a flame so hot and so passionate that we can’t look directly into it or abide its presence without help.
“The hopes and fears of all the years/Are met in thee tonight,” says the famous carol about the little town of Bethlehem. That is about right. The silent night of Christmas Eve soon turns into the raging grief and horror of Holy Innocents Day. The Christmas season encompasses both events, birth and death, hope and murder; the event we remember at this time of year, the incarnation of God in human flesh and human history, engages the full spectrum of human life.