These were the lambs for the Passover; and on that same night, wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a stone manger just as they were, God’s promised Messiah was born. The lambs were for the remembrance of God’s great deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt; the Passover was the beginning of the Exodus. Jesus had come to lead the people of God on a new Exodus, an even greater deliverance from an even greater slavery—not from any mere political power, be it Egypt or Rome, but from the power of sin and death. It’s entirely fitting that Jesus’ birth was heralded by the cosmic sign of a great star blazing in the night, because it was a cosmic event. This was the Creator of all things becoming a creature, the Author of the whole story writing himself in as a character; this was the God above time breaking in to history, and the world would never be the same.
When Caesar Augustus ordered a census be taken throughout the Roman Empire, all he wanted was information for the tax rolls. The idea that his census would be remembered for something else entirely would have been completely inconceivable to him. And yet, so it was, because Rome allowed the Jews to conduct the census according to their own traditions. That meant registering everyone not by their current address, but by their clans and tribes, in the family’s hometown, in the place of their ancestors.
So it was that one descendant of the great King David, a carpenter from the little town of Nazareth up in the hills of Galilee, traveled one spring down to the home of his ancestors, the town of Bethlehem, in the hill country of Judea. And yes, I did say spring, and we’ll get to that in a few minutes. With him on the journey was a very pregnant young woman. Matthew 1 tells us that they were already married at this point, but the marriage was unconsummated; Luke’s point in 2:5 is probably not that they were still only engaged, but rather that Mary was still a virgin. Nowadays, we’d tell her she was far too pregnant to travel, but they didn’t think that way back then, so there she was.
It’s unfortunate for us, but there are a number of traditions which have grown up around this story which skew our understanding of it. In the first place, we tend to imagine Mary going into labor on the back of the donkey as they approach Bethlehem, and giving birth that same night; that’s not what Luke says. It wasn’t long after their arrival that she gave birth, but there were at least a couple days in between.
A more significant problem is with the traditional translation “there was no room for them in the inn.” You see, there’s a word in the Greek for “inn”; Luke uses it in the parable of the Good Samaritan. That’s not the word here. This word is kataluma, which Luke uses in chapter 22 for the “upper room”—the guest room—where Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover. That’s a much more natural interpretation of the word here. For one thing, it would be odd for Luke to use kataluma to refer to an inn when he knew a better word for that. For another, Bethlehem probably didn’t have any inns. It was a small town near a major city, and inns really weren’t all that common. Mostly, when people traveled, they stayed with relatives, or friends, or relatives of friends.
The same was true of Joseph and Mary, but we miss that because we see Jesus laid in a feed trough and we think “barn.” Villagers in that time and place didn’t keep their animals in barns, because they didn’t have barns. When the weather required the animals to be kept indoors at night, they stayed in the house. You can see from the diagram on the screen that the typical house had one big living room, with the main level for the family and a lower level for the animals. It wasn’t a big drop, just a few steps. The mangers for the animals were cut into the floor of the main level, right near the edge.
For some houses, that was all there was. Some, however, had a second room attached, with its own entrance. That was the kataluma, the guest room. When Joseph got to Bethlehem, he would have been looking to stay with relatives, as would all the other members of the clan who were coming into Bethlehem to be registered; naturally, he went to those in the family who had guest rooms in their homes. Despite Mary’s advanced pregnancy, however, no one made space for them in any of the guest rooms. After all, their story was scandalous, and the family did not approve. Still, they couldn’t turn out a pregnant relative either, so someone in the clan let Mary and Joseph stay in their home—but apart from the rest of the family.
That sounds bad, but a manger set into the floor, filled with clean straw, was a safe, sturdy bed for a newborn. It’s not what you would have expected for the Son of God, but for exactly that reason, it was a sign of God’s grace. Jesus wasn’t just born for the rich and influential, like the Persian wise men who would be the second outside witnesses to his birth. He was also born for people like the shepherds, who got to see him first. Shepherds filled a critical role in the economy in Israel, but increasingly, their only role in Jewish society was at the bottom. They would never have been allowed into the guest room of a respectable house—but in the lowest part of the house, where the animals stayed, they belonged. Jesus was born where they too would be welcome.
That matters, because the presence of the shepherds in this story is a sign to us. We tend not to see it, because we’ve gotten too close—our familiarity gets in the way—but it’s still there; the shepherds show us how big this story really is. I’ve already mentioned one way in which that’s true: Jesus is God with us—all of us. You can see that in the angel’s words to the shepherds. He tells them to look for a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger, but he doesn’t say, “This is how you’ll know it’s the right baby”; he says, “This will be a sign to you.” In other words, there’s a message here. God has come to Earth, love has come to his people, and he came to a place where anyone could come, so that right from the first moment he was God with all of us, everyone.
There’s another part to that message, however, which the shepherds probably didn’t get. You see, this was Bethlehem, where the Temple flocks grazed; and the fact that the sheep were out in the fields at night rather than in their sheepfolds back in town indicates that it was lambing season, in the spring of the year. The firstborn lambs would be wrapped in strips of cloth to protect them and keep them still, then taken into the Tower of the Flock and laid in a basin carved out of a piece of limestone, which was called “the manger.” Here they were examined to see if they were without blemish or defect.