Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
I’m sure that I’m not alone in my enjoyment of the pageantry and drama of the Nativity. I’ve seen more productions of the birth narrative than I care to count over the years, but every time it brings me so much joy. A few years ago, our church produced Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity, and my wife and I had a ball portraying Mary and Joseph. The congregation got a kick out of seeing the pastor run around frantically looking for a place for the baby to be born, aided in realism by the fact that my wife was about eight months pregnant with our youngest daughter! It was a joyous and dramatic event, one that fits in the tried-and-true tradition of nativity productions that emphasize the urgency of Mary’s delivery.
While this makes for great church productions, it also strongly influences how we understand this story, casting a shadow of burden and anxiety on a story that might better be understood as a blessed occasion of provision. For all the fun that comes from frantically finding a place for the First Family to rest, a closer look at the text not only contradicts this reading but also provides a way for a different theological understanding of what takes place.
When we understand this nativity story as a burden, we rob the sense of wonder and excitement in the text. Could it be that being a part of the census was a blessing? Does any good come out of the census—especially because the census established Joseph as being from the line of David? There is not only a sense of belonging but of status and blessing from claiming such a revered heritage.
Could the journey itself have been a blessing? I might not suggest that traveling the ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been a breeze for Mary and Joseph as Mary was with child, but might the idea of being home and among family have been a gift when considering the impending birth? Could being near family, who presumably might be more understanding of a pregnant betrothed Mary have brought some relief for the couple in the last days of her pregnancy?
I would encourage preachers to continue to imagine what blessings might have come from the census, from gathering there at home. There seems to be a rich and somewhat untapped well of blessings in the arrival of that baby when we take away the manufactured urgency and rush of their arrival.
Blessings of the manger
In the drama of the birth, much is made of the manger’s filth and, when coupled with the lack of “room in the inn,” a presumed lack of provision for the Savior. And while there is much to say about the earthiness of the incarnation as initiated in the manger, a closer reading of the story in the context of ancient Near Eastern housing traditions offers us a pathway to a more blessed view of the manger.
First, there was not the rush that we associate with the birth. Verse 6 says that “while they were there,” Mary was ready to give birth, which should be read as “while they had already been settled there,” as opposed to “as soon as they got there Mary’s water broke and she had to be rushed to a place to give birth!” Furthermore, that manger was likely not as off and distanced from the rest of the family as is often portrayed. When we strip our assumptions about a “mean innkeeper” who wouldn’t allow Jesus into a motel, we recognize that Jesus was placed in the manger, most likely on the floor in the family room, and that the reason Jesus was born in the family room and placed in a manger is because there was no room in the guest room upstairs.
It reminds me of the stories of babies being placed in dresser drawers that served as cradles. They were safe, secure, and near someone watching over the child. What if this placing in the manger isn’t a sign of lack but a sign of provision? How might we preach this story if instead of emphasizing what wasn’t available for the First Family as Jesus was about to be born, we instead magnify the ways that they were provided for? Instead of the manger being a burden, how might being in the manger, on the floor in the family room when the guest room wasn’t available, be a sign of God’s provision? Is not having a familiar place among loving people a sign of God’s grace and provision?
Blessings of the sign
There wasn’t a lot there, but his birth was more normal than we might often account for. And theologically, this is fertile ground. Jesus was born like every other peasant boy in a home surrounded by family. Even the signs were mundane but were gifts themselves!
When we take the manger for what it was, a hole on the ground of the family room, we can begin to see the blessings of it: the symbolism of the Bread of Life being born in Bethlehem, the city of bread, in something that is used to feed. In the manger there is provision. There is a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. A baby symbolizes newness and purity. Swaddling clothes are a wonderful symbol of protection and comfort. Preachers may be able to say a lot about protection and the gift of swaddling clothes if they’ve ever had any experience swaddling or watching a baby be swaddled. It’s rough! But it provides protection and comfort for the baby.
What does it mean if we view the incarnation, the nativity, as a time of blessed protection and provision instead of lack? Our viewpoint affects what we’re getting ready for. If the gift of Christ’s return is viewed through the prism of lack, then we are getting ready for lack, and while it is noble to be excited for that, honestly, no one is quite that excited for lack. But what if we viewed the return, the breaking into this world, through the lens of abundance? How might that affect our view of salvation? Of the birth narrative? Of Christ’s return? If we read it without judgment for the poor, there is dignity in the manger.