Archive for December, 2012

The Nativity

December 23, 2012

Christmas is almost upon us, so I thought I would share my take on the birth story. This is the central part of a much longer version I wrote that covers the whole story from the announcement of John’s pending conception through the visitation of the magi. It was written in an attempt to take get into the two accounts of Matthew and Luke, to reconcile them,to see the human story contained therein, and to strip away a lot of the accretions that make up the modern “creche”.

You will probably notice several “omissions” in the story, things you thought were actually in scripture, I’ll explain those in a few notes at the end.


Then noonday sun was hot but not unbearable as it bore down on the man walking beside the donkey. Behind him on the small cart sat his wife and their few possessions-mostly his tools. She let out a small sigh as a cool breeze blew for a few seconds. Almost seven months into her pregnancy, she knew Joseph had taken things easy on this trip; That what had taken over a week would normally have taken only three or four days. She was grateful for his care, but even more for the sight of Bethlehem shimmering in the heat in front of them.

Joseph too was grateful that they were almost to their destination, though at that moment his thoughts were back in Nazareth and on the events that had brought them here. He smiled as he remembered Mary’s homecoming from Elizabeth’s; what a joyous reunion that had been! Then the frantic couple of weeks to finish the wedding preparations. And then, almost before he realized it, they were married. It had been quite a party, or so he had been told. In his memory it was all a bit of a blur except that Mary had been beside him and was now his wife.

But, of course, being married had not solved all their problems. While only their own immediate families still knew of the baby growing inside Mary, it was only a matter of time until someone noticed. And even if they could keep it a secret until the birth, it would then be known and everyone would be aware that the wedding had only been some three months earlier. Clearly they needed to get away, to be somewhere where they were just a young married couple who had been blessed in the union.

Nazareth‘s small size, part of the problem because everybody knew them, was also part of the solution. As long as he was part of his father’s household, Joseph could work with his father. But now he had his own family to look after and there simply wasn’t enough work for two carpenters in the little village. Normally a son in Joseph’s position would look for work at the nearby villages, but while that would have solved the work problem, it wouldn’t have helped with the baby tissue. They needed to move further afield, but where? And how to explain such an odd decision?

That’s when the news of the census reached them. Most people regarded the census with suspicion, if not outright hostility, for why else would Caesar want to know how many people there were except to impose a new tax, or increase those already in place? But for two-now three-families, the news came as an answer to prayer. Joseph, it was true, could have stayed in Nazareth for he had been born there, as had his parents. But their family had its roots down south in Judaea and they still had quite close kin in Bethlehem. It was the excuse they needed, and so within a month of the wedding they had found themselves on the road south.

Bethlehem itself was not much bigger than Nazareth, but it was close to Jerusalem and so the prospects for work for a good carpenter were quite good. Joseph is a little concerned that he might not be as established as he would like before the baby came, less than two months from now, but he could not deny that so far God seem to have worked everything out amazingly well. He would just have to trust.

It was almost two hours later that the donkey actually got to rest. The house he stood in front of was typical of the village: two storeys of one room each with a small enclosed yard behind. It was home to Eliezar and Joanna, their three young children, and Eliezar’s mother who had come to live with them some months earlier when her husband had died. Eliezar was a cousin of sorts of Joseph’s father and he and his wife welcomed the young couple warmly.

Over the evening meal Joseph and Eliezar discuss the situation.

“Of course you must stay here!” Eliezar declared.

“But we had no idea you had three children now, or that your mother had come to live with you. We should find other relatives to stay with.”

“So we’re a little crowded. We are your closest relatives here and besides Joanna would kill me if I let you take Mary away before the baby comes. Be reasonable, Joseph. You’re going to be very busy looking to get your shop going, finding work, and Mary is going to need care. We would be honoured to help.”

“All good points, Eliezar, but to…”

“No ‘buts’! Look, Joseph, my family and I will take the upper room, you and Mary can have downstairs to yourselves. Well, apart from the animals at night, of course. That will give us plenty of room and you some privacy. After the baby comes in your work is going well, we will help you find your own place.”

Joseph looked over to where Mary and Joanna would deep in their own conversation, no doubt about babies and birth and motherhood. He could see that already a bond had formed between the women, and Eliezar was right, Mary would need help, preferably from an older woman who had been through having children of her own.

“You may yet come to regret your generosity, Eliezar, but you win, we will stay.”

And so the next two months passed swiftly. Joseph did, indeed, find work and, being a masterful carpenter, was soon in some demand. It certainly made him feel better about Eliezer and Joanna’s hospitality when he can contribute his shirt to the household economy. Joanna and Mary cut along like sisters, the older woman coaching Mary through the final weeks and making sure everything was ready.

Then came a night there was disturbed by Mary’s cries. Joanna sent her eldest daughter to fetch the village midwife and shooed the menfolk upstairs. Like innumerable husbands before and since, Joseph found the next few hours a torment. Every time he heard Mary cry out he started for the stairs, to be stopped each time by Eliezar’s kind but firm words. Then he would sit for a while until, fidgeting, he would rise and pace back and forth. Eliezar laughed quietly, remembering when his own children had been born and how he, too, had been just like Joseph.

“Be calm, Joseph. Women have been giving birth since Eve. Always it is with pain, as God said, but the midwife is good, and so is my Joanna. Mary will be fine and soon you will have a son or daughter to dote on.”

“a son, Eliezar, she’s having a son.”

“Ah yes, I remember. But sit, Joseph, he will come no sooner for all that you wear a hole in my floor!”

Sometime in the early hours of the morning of different cry came up to them; the high, but hearty cry of a new being announcing its presence to the world. Joseph jumped up and started for the stairs again.

“He’s here! Praise God it’s over! My son is here.”

“Joseph, sit down!” Eliezar said, gently but firmly. “Yes he is here, but Mary’s work is not yet done. The women will not let you in yet, nor be pleased at your interruption. Let them be about their business, they will send for you as soon as is proper.”

Joseph sat again, reluctantly, and the next half hour seemed to pass even slower. The baby had not cried for long and after that no other noises made it up to the upper room where the men waited and the children slept. But finally Joanna appeared and beckoned Joseph to follow her.

As he entered, Joseph ‘s eyes instinctively sought Mary’s face. He saw her lying on their mat, pale and tired but happy and not in any obvious danger. She smiled up at him as he crossed to her then pulled down the blanket so he could see the baby. He was sleeping on her breast, his little face peaceful, his mouth making small sucking motions. As was the custom, he was tightly wrapped in strips of cloth to prevent him flailing around-which was thought to be bad for babies. Tentatively Joseph reached down and barely brushed his fingers over the light fuzz of hair.

“He won’t break, and Joseph, he’s a fine strong baby.”

“He is, and Mary is going to be just fine too, Joseph.” Joanna added. She needs to rest now, as does the baby, but there is nothing to be concerned about. The midwife will be back this afternoon to check on them both.”

“Yes, I suppose sleep will do us all good.” Joseph stood looking down at Mary and the baby in such confusion the Joanna burst out laughing.

“Look over there, Joseph, I’ve made you up a bed on the other side of the room. You may have forgotten that you cannot share her bed until after her purification, but I have not.”

Joseph arose early the next morning, moving quietly to let Mary sleep. He opened the door and led the animals outside for the day. By the time he had them settled the sun had risen and was already replacing the cooler early morning air with its warmth. It was going to be a beautiful day. Joseph went back in to find Mary sitting up, she had obviously just finished nursing the baby and was checking his wrappings.

“Here, Joseph, he’s asleep now for a while. Take him and put him in the manger.”

“I should have made him a cradle, it was not right that he should lie in a manger!”

“If God had wanted him in a cradle, he could have let him be born in the palace. No, Joseph, he has been born as one of us, why should he not sleep as one of us? It was no dishonour for us to spend time in mangers, why should it be dishonourable for him?”

“Yes, I suppose so,” said Joseph as he changed the straw in the manger. Then he went and took the baby and gently laid him in the soft bed. “Let me just take this old straw outside and then I’ll see about getting us something to eat.”

“Joseph, I’m not an invalid! You go take out the straw, I will prepare the food.”

Joseph picked up the old straw and carried it outside, placing it where the donkey could get to it. As he turned to go back in he saw three men coming up the street, two of them barely more than boys. It was still a little early for most people to be about, but from the look of them-and the smell as they reached him-he guessed that they were shepherds returning from a night in the fields. Thinking they were heading for their homes, Joseph started for the door but was brought up short when the old shepherd spoke.

“Hello, sir. A moment of your time?”

Joseph turned, puzzled. “Yes?”

“is this the house with the baby was born last night?”

“Why, yes it is. My son was indeed born last night.”

The shepherd seemed quite excited and yet also somewhat bashful. The younger two gestured to the older one to continue.

“Could we… I mean, it is not too great an imposition…we would… be grateful if…”

“We want to see the baby!” Broke in one of the young men, impatiently, adding a “please, sir” when he realized his rudeness.

“Well, I suppose it’ll be alright. But let me make sure that all is in order inside. Please, wait here a moment.”

Joseph went inside, shaking his head.

“What is it, husband? Is something wrong?”

“No. No, not wrong, just odd. There are three shepherds outside to want to see the baby.”

“But we don’t know any shepherds. How do they know?”

“I didn’t ask. But they seem very eager, even excited. What do you think?”

“Well, they are quiet and do not wake him, I don’t see can do any harm. Invite them in.”

It was almost funny to watch the shepherds followed Joseph in, they were trying so hard to make no noise. But when he saw the baby one of the young men grabbed the older man’s arm and in a loud whisper said excitedly, “See! It is just as we were told! It is true!”

“Yes, yes, I see…swaddled…in the manger…This is indeed him.”

“I’m sorry,” Mary said, “but who told you about the baby? You seem to know so much but apart from the midwife no one else who knew about his birth has left this house.”

Now the shepherds looked embarrassed and for a minute just stood there shuffling their feet. Then the elder one took a deep breath and began hesitantly to explain.

“We were on the hillside watching over the flock when…Oh, you won’t believe it! We can hardly believe it ourselves-we spent all night and the whole walk here debating it!”

Mary smiled to herself, this sounded familiar to her. She well remembered how she had felt after Gabriel’s visit to her.

“Tell us, friends, for I think you’ll find us willing to believe you. You had a visitor, didn’t you.”

“Yes! We didn’t see him come-missed his going too, come to that-but suddenly there he was. Made us jump, I can tell you. Then as we was scrabbling for our staffs (people showing up in the middle of the night are rarely friendly, after all) he says not to be afraid, that he came in peace with good news.”

“That stumped us,” added one of the younger ones, “I mean, who delivers good news in the middle of the night? Or to shepherds in the fields?”

“Indeed,” continued the elder, “but before we could ask such questions he continued his message. He told us that a baby had just been born. A descendant of David. Than he would be the Messiah. Then he said he would we would find the baby swaddled and in a manger.”

Then the other young man spoke up. “It was as though there was a huge choir somewhere nearby-a music that accompanied his speaking. It reminded me of the temple choir praising God.”

“We didn’t know what to do. After he was gone we spent a lot of time discussing it. He hadn’t actually said we should seek the child, but he had said we would ‘find him’. Finally we decided we just had to try to find this wonderful child, so as soon as we were relieved we hurried into town and began asking everyone we met. Finally, someone told us that they knew there was a woman near to giving birth here, so we came.”

The shepherds spent a while longer admiring the sleeping baby but then their exhaustion began to catch up on them and they took their leave. As Joseph saw them out the asked him “You don’t think we’re crazy to you?”

“No, no more than we are. For both my wife and I have received such messengers. No, friends, God is moving and the time of our deliverance is coming.”



1) There is nothing in the texts to suggest that Jesus was born on the night that the couple arrived in Bethlehem. It is usually assumed to be so because otherwise they would surely have found somewhere better to live than a stable by then, but see note 2.

2) There is no stable! Nowhere does the text mention a stable. I don’t know when this idea was first thought up, but I’ll bet it was an urban, probably wealthier, Christian who had the thought. No  doubt it was prompted by the mention of the manger, but to a Judean peasant such a thing would not have had that connotation. Most peasant houses were small, often one room, and the families animals would have spent the night inside along with the family (who would sleep together on a raised part of the floor). Thus a manger would have been part of the ordinary furniture of the house, for use at night when the animals were indoors. The babies, of course, would be in bed with the parents (the idea of a “babies room” and cots is quite a modern, western idea) at night, but during the day, when the animals were outside and the mother needing to work, what more natural than to make  the manger serve double duty as a place to keep the baby safe?

3) The is no inn! Ah, but here you are wrong, I hear some thinking, for the text does mention the inn. However, that is not  necessarily so. The actual text says that “there was no room in the kataluma“. Kataluma is a word that can mean inn, but not always. Its basic meaning is a place to break a journey, and it is thus also used of a guest room in a private house–indeed, the only other usage of the word in the NT is translated that way, it is the word used of t he room for the last supper. Bethlehem was a very small village and there is serious doubt among scholars that it would have had an inn, that, plus the fact that Joseph had connections in Bethlehem and the importance of hospitality in the culture, make it much more likely that the word refers to a guest room in a relatives house.

4) Where are the magi? The story of the magi does not tell us that they came anywhere near the actual birth, and I think it likely t hat they actually showed up as many as nine months later. I’ll post my version of that part of the story later and explain more then.


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