When I was a child, I designed and created this plastic-canvas nativity set for my mother. Like many nativity scenes, the figures in this set look so pristine and comfortable. But the reality was probably anything but comfortable. When we describe the Christmas story, we use special, holy-sounding words like “stable,” “swaddling clothes,” and “manger,” and we play sweet music as we act it out. It doesn’t feel right to say that Christ was born in a barn, wrapped in rags, and placed in a feeding trough, and we seldom imagine how annoying the animals in the stable must have sounded and what the place must have smelled like.
For me, at least, imagining the harsh reality of the situation makes it more sacred rather than less sacred. Each year I gain a different insight into each member of the nativity scene. This year, my heart aches for Joseph. The stress he felt must have been almost unbearable. He wanted to be a great provider, so I imagine he felt like a failure to have gotten into such a predicament where his wife’s baby had to be born in a stable.
In years past, when I’ve thought of the shepherds, I’ve thought of how merciful God was to let such poor and ordinary people be the witnesses of Christ’s birth. But now I wonder if the shepherds came more for Mary and Joseph’s sake than for their own sakes. Since the angel told the shepherds the Savior had been born “this day,” that means Mary and Joseph had been through the pain and complications of child birth only a few hours before. Tired, desperate, and possibly traumatized, Mary and Joseph were far from home and had no family to visit them and share in the joy of their child’s birth. I like to think the shepherds were sent to cheer them up. Maybe the shepherds were chosen because they were the only ones awake and available at the hour when Mary and Joseph needed them most. They were “keeping watch over their flocks by night,” the scriptures tell us. God wanted to comfort Mary and Joseph in their very hour of need, so it couldn’t wait until morning.
Mary and Joseph didn’t need fancy gifts at that moment; they just needed to know they weren’t alone. What’s more, they needed to know that they were in the right place, despite their perceived “bad luck.” After all, the shepherds had been instructed by the angel that a baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger” would be their sign. The shepherds wouldn’t have found and identified Christ if He had been born anywhere else. Christ must have been the only baby in all of Bethlehem to be laid in a manger. No other family was that destitute.
Mary and Joseph had the perfect visitors because humble shepherds would have felt right at home in the environment of a stable and wouldn’t have been offended at the straw, the animal smells, and the lack of accommodations. The shepherds could empathize and give advice for how to make living conditions more bearable. Had Mary and Joseph been visited by kings and wise men on that first night, they would have been ashamed and embarrassed, only adding to their stress.
In everyone’s life, there is a time for shepherds and a time for wise men. In our darkest hour, the comfort of new friends can come immediately. The gold, frankincense, myrrh, and other material blessings may take more time, but what we may not realize is that those blessings are already on their way. Even though Mary and Joseph didn’t physically see and know about the wise men until much later, the wise men began moving towards them from that very first night—from the moment that they saw the star signaling Christ’s birth. Those expensive gifts didn’t come to Mary and Joseph right away, but they came when Mary and Joseph were prepared to receive the wise men with more dignity, and they came when they needed them most. When the little family became refugees in Egypt shortly thereafter, those gifts from the wise men may very well have helped them purchase lodging in some place better than a stable this time.
In my life, what is my stable? If I’m comparing myself to Joseph, what is the humiliating place where I don’t want to be, but there was nowhere else to go? If I’m comparing myself to the shepherds, what is the undesirable place where I’m sent at a moment’s notice to bring service and comfort to others? If I’m comparing myself to the wise men, what is the place that I must ask about and seek after for months and years? If I’m comparing myself to the innkeeper, what is the place where I’ve pushed the most important things away because the rest of my life was too crowded?
Whatever that stable is in my life right now, one thing is certain: it’s where Christ is.
I’m glad we call it a stable instead of a barn. Why? Because it reminds me that Christ is my rock and my foundation. Through Him I am stable. For He and His light dwell within me.
I remember reading somewhere that during those days in ancient Jerusalem there was a special stable kept within the cities gates to hold the unblemished lambs for sacrifice at the Temple. God could have made sure His son was born in more comfortable circumstances, but it was only fitting that the Lamb of God should be born in the same environment and in the same company as actual lambs. And while writing this just now, I realized that the fact that Christ was laid in a manger—a feeding trough designed to hold wheat, hay, water, and other food and sustenance—is in keeping with how Christ is the bread of life and living water that “feeds” us.
Feel free to comment and share your own insights about the events and the people of the Christmas story. How does pondering and imagining these things inspire you to light the world?