Was Jesus born in “a stable all forlorn”? Was there no room for Joseph and Mary in the local Travelodge or hotel? Did the angels sing to the shepherds?
The answer to all these questions is ‘no’. A stable, yes, but more likely a cave attached to a house where the most valuable animals were kept in a private, safe place away from thieves, but close to the family that owned them. Not forlorn at all. And the house it was attached to was most likely owned by a family member of Joseph, who had lots of guests for the census so that the guest room was occupied and not the right place for a woman to give birth. The cave-stable offered privacy. (The word translated ‘inn’ does not mean pub or hotel, it means ‘guest room’ in a house, like the spare bedroom we may have in our houses.) Then, after the momentous event, the shepherds knew something had happened because the angel who told them that a child had been born was joined by a multitude that said, not sang, the famous words “Gloria in excelsis deo.”
There’s a lot in the way the nativity story is often told and sung about in carols that isn’t strictly correct in terms of the Biblical text, which actually gives very few details about what happened when Jesus was born. While it’s understandable that human imagination will try to fill in the gaps, there’s also a lot in the common telling of the story that’s just wrong, like the three matters in the questions I’ve just asked.
However, one thing about the popular understanding of the story that is absolutely correct is that God incarnate entered the world in humble circumstances. His first crib was a manger, an animal’s feed trough (Luke 2:12), which is not a glamorous situation by any means! (It was, by the way, more likely to be made of stone than of wood, as anyone who’s visited Israel will know from seeing stone mangers all over the place.)
Jesus then lived a life in humble circumstances – so much so that at one point during his life he said that ‘the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Luke 9:58). And of course, He died in humble circumstances – mocked, scorned and rejected, as Isaiah had foretold (Isaiah 53).
As the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians, Jesus had been ‘rich’, but ‘became poor’ (2 Corinthians 8:9). The words he uses refer to the ends of a spectrum, from an abundance of capacity for needs to be met to a total deficiency. You can’t think of a more complete change in the situation of the eternal Son of God. As the great preacher CH Spurgeon put it in one of his famous orations, “He who had once been waited on by angels becomes the servant of servants, takes a towel, girds himself, and washes his disciples’ feet! He who was once honoured with the hallelujahs of ages is now spit upon and despised!”
This turnaround in circumstances for the Son of God was deliberate; it had a purpose. As Paul continues, this was for our sake, “so that (we) through His poverty might become rich”. Immanuel – Jesus – identified with us, stood with us and, “while we were still sinners, [he] died for us” (Romans 6:8). The life and death and resurrection of Christ turn our circumstances around, moving us from one end of the spiritual spectrum to the other. From fear to faith; from self-interest to self-giving love; from ignorance to understanding; from sin to salvation.
The humility of the circumstances of the birth of Jesus are, therefore, of immense significance and it’s good that the re-telling of the Christmas story gets this key point right, whatever details may get messed up along the way.
This, therefore, is a story with immense significance for the way we live our lives, both as individuals but also as congregations within the Church. One of the important practical implications that Paul draws for the Corinthians from the poverty of Christ is that we who benefit from his incredible grace should be generous and abound in grace towards others. He tells them of the Christians in Macedonia, who had given generously to a collection to assist the believers in Jerusalem who faced a famine at the time. He says that “according to ability, and beyond their ability, the gave of their own accord”, glad to be involved in the endeavour and seeing it as a privilege. (2 Corinthians 8:1-6)
He doesn’t order the Corinthians to stump up as well. Generosity is not commanded. What Paul does, however, is to use the nature of Christ’s life on earth as a reminder to them of what grace has done for them. He appeals to their competitive juices – something that mightn’t work for all congregations, but evidently did in this case – to prove how genuine their love is by matching the Macedonians.
This is the origin of why, in our society and culture, Christmas is a holiday season that is about giving gifts. It’s been distorted of course in so many ways, but to many people the essence of Christmas is still the idea of love for others and generosity.
However, for Christians, this shouldn’t only be a Christmas time thing. God calls on us to respond to the turnaround in our lives that grace has delivered by having a heart for others in need all the time. The Uniting Church has always had a particular calling in this regard and I believe that the message of Christ becoming poor so we can become rich continues to call us to find ways of making our money matter.
Importantly, the passage says that this isn’t about one part of the Church impoverishing another part, but about equality. It’s an early version of what’s enshrined in the idea of all the Church’s property being ‘common wealth’. Yet, the focus is not, ‘oh great, so someone else will help me out when I think I need it’, but rather on those who have an excess being generous with those who need assistance.
There might not be anything new to be said about the baby in the manger and the Christmas story. But until we’ve all thoroughly remembered and embedded what it’s all about in our lives every day, the old, old story needs to be repeated. Jesus, though he was rich became poor, so that by grace we might become rich. Believe it. Live it.
Warren Bird is Executive Director of Uniting Financial Services