“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn…”
I open today's little leather door on the advent calendar and I see...a cave. A cave?
Having grown up with the usual, stable-oriented nativity scene, I never once thought to question its accuracy. It's a 3D version of bumper sticker theology, I suppose, accepting that tradition as fact. But I never had reason to doubt it and to be honest, it doesn't change much about the scandal of this event in history. But for today, it will be explored.
Jesus was not born in a stable as we have been taught. It wasn't somehow warm and welcoming and full of nice clean straw and a smattering of animals gazing lovingly at the infant Son of God. They didn't just come off the set of "Charlotte's Web" and the big sheep wasn't speaking with the voice of Dave Madden. Farm animals are basically spooky and reticent. They don't come and eat out of your hand like a puppy. And they aren't remotely clean.
But the real fact here is that Jesus wasn't born in a stable at all. It was a cave. If you go to Bethlehem they have a cathedral built on the site, but the archaeologists will tell you that it wasn't anything as ornate or beautiful. It was a cave. A hole in a hill with one very low doorway. In those times, shepherds would round up all their sheep at night and run them into a cave. Then they would lie down in the low entryway so no predators could enter without first awakening them. It is the image Jesus presents when he talks about “My sheep hear my voice..." He describes
Himself as the Good Shepherd who lies down in the gate and if the thieves try to break in and lure away the sheep, they must do so by coming in some other way.
Such was the case here. The cave was probably big enough for maybe 30 sheep so it was somewhat roomy for only two people. But it was low, because sheep are small. Mary and Joseph probably could not stand up inside the cave. The doorway was only big enough for a couple of sheep to enter at a time...or one adult who was willing to bow down and probably crawl in on all fours.
It was dark and damp, as caves are. And it certainly hadn't been properly prepared for childbirth. It probably smelled like sheep. Sheep smell terribly because they are a notoriously dirty animal. Their long coats collect everything from everywhere they have been. They need to be sheared twice a year not only for the value of the wool, but because the filth that clings to sheep wool -particularly around certain parts of the sheep- is disgusting. They have bugs. They have lice and ticks. They are sloppy eaters and the little trough that Mary used for a crib was probably a disgusting mess.
Before my daughter was born, her mom went on a cleaning frenzy in our apartment. The place smelled like Clorox and Lysol for about 4 straight months. It's common with pregnant moms-to-be, they call it “nesting” Imagine poor Mary, she is just a teenager of probably no more than
16. She is technically unmarried because the Jewish
custom took a year from betrothal to actual consummation and she had gotten pregnant during that period. They were poor. It took a dream from God Himself to convince her husband that this whole Messiah story was true.
Now she was about to give birth, a scared kid in a strange town under scandalous circumstances, and she finds out only hours before delivery that the place is a disgusting mess. What could she do? We forget sometimes that all the players in this grand plan of redemption were real humans and they felt all the things we feel. Sometimes, because we read about them in Scripture for all of our lives, we remove their humanity. But they were real people.
I remember how scared I was when I found out we were going to be parents. I wanted to be a dad. I looked forward to children, yet when the little test strip turned blue, I was petrified. So was my wife. Why would I think Mary and Joseph were any less?
Most moms have a special bond with their unborn child. Sometimes I have been guilty of removing that emotion from Mary. I see her sometimes as a player in this play and not as a young girl who carried a baby for nine months and felt all the same attachments that all other moms feel.
By this moment in time Mary was in love with her little baby and she was fully engulfed in the nesting thing and I imagine that when she crawled into that cave on her hands and knees and saw a dark, dank, smelly hole in the wall with dirty, soiled straw everywhere and a trough with some stagnant sheep-drooled water laying in it, she must have broken down in tears. “Oh Joseph...we can't have Him here!" she might have said. A poor, meager carpenter, Joseph must have tried to force a smile and convince his young bride that everything would be alright. He probably tried to fix it like a man would and his best efforts only put an exclamation point on how bad this place really was.
Maybe Joseph finally took Mary into his arms and kissed her head and said "I know it's bad...but it's all there is Mary. We have a promise from God and our child will be okay." Maybe as he held her, he hid his own embarrassed tears. I know how he felt.
The really amazing thing here is that this was the place God chose for His son to enter the world stage. This stinking, nasty hole in the side of a hill. This cold, dreary, dark, smelly cave. Probably as far removed from a hospital maternity room as ever could be.
This is where God's great plan of redemption would begin. Why? Why was Jesus born this poor? Why was He so rejected by men that He even had to be born in a cave like this? Why? And why a baby in the first place? Because one glimpse at these humble beginnings and no one can feel threatened by this Savior. He wasn't rich, He wasn't powerful (in the worlds eyes) He wasn't intimidating or daunting. He didn't demand the accolades due Him (Phil 2:5-8). He was a "Man of No Reputation.” He "became nothing" (again, Phil 2:5-8). He wasn't a name-it claim-it carnie huckster selling some promise of riches and wealth as we determine it. He was lowly, broken, and humble. He was frightened. He intimidated nobody. He wanted what all babies want in those first few hours and days, He wanted to receive love, and more than that, He wanted to penetrate our hearts with love as only holding a newborn can do. That is why He came as He did.
To gain access you have to be willing to bow down. Maybe even get on your hands and knees if you are tall like me. There is only one way into this cave and only one way to see this King. There is only one entrance and it requires you to leave everything behind and bow. You won't be impressed by the surroundings. He did that on purpose. When you get here you will feel like a welcome guest because few people will make this journey and come to this humble place. But those that do...those that allow themselves to be humbled at this place will walk away changed to their very core. By a baby in a feed trough, in a cave in Bethlehem.
No room for the Baby in Bethlehem's inn, Only a cattle shed! No room on this earth for the dear Son of God, Nowhere to lay His head…
Unknown (A child's Christmas Hymn)