We’re so familiar with the Christmas story that we hardly notice its scandal. But think about the scenario. Mary was found pregnant out of wedlock in a culture where such shameful deeds were intolerable, and her “Holy Ghost” story would only intensify the ridicule. What would you say if your daughter or sister or girlfriend or wife came to you with such a tale? “No, really, it was God who did this. I’m telling the truth. See, I had this vision ...” Yeah right.
Instead of stoning his fiancée, Joseph decided to divorce her.[i] But God stopped him in his tracks and convinced him that Mary’s Holy Ghost story was actually true. So Mary and Joseph endured the shame together once Mary’s belly expanded into evidence.
Luckily, Rome called for a census, which required the couple to leave Nazareth and travel to Joseph’s village of origin: Bethlehem. The rugged journey provided a soothing respite from public shame, no doubt. But once they entered Bethlehem, more judgmental eyebrows were raised and the scandal continued.
Popular renditions of the Christmas story reflect little historical truth. Jesus was most likely not born outside of a commercial “inn,” as our English translations suggest (Luke 2:7). The word kataluma can refer to an ancient motel, but it usually refers to a spare room of a house, not an “inn.” There probably weren’t any commercial inns in a small village like Bethlehem, so “spare room” is the best translation of the word kataluma.[ii] So when Mary and Joseph sought shelter in their hometown of Bethlehem, they almost certainly went to a house of a relative and asked to stay in his spare room, his kataluma.
“Sorry,” the relative said, eyeing Mary’s expanded waistline. “There’s no space in our kataluma. You’ll have to sleep out with the animals.”
“But, sir,” Joseph pleaded, “my wife is about to have a baby, and—”
“Fiancée, Joseph! She’s your fiancée, not your wife,” his relative interjected. “You can sleep out with the animals if you want. But you cannot come under my roof.”
Extending hospitality to the scandalous couple would give approval to their actions, and the whole village would soon find out. Joseph’s relative could not risk the shame. So Mary and Joseph remained outside in the courtyard, where the animals were kept at night.
And then it started. Contractions knifed their way through Mary’s abdomen, while nervous excitement shivered up Joseph’s spine. The piercing pain overshadowed the thick stench of animal excrement that oppressed the cool winter air. And the shame of rejection and ridicule was drowned out by the jubilance of a newborn child.
No doctor, no instruments, no sanitation, and no painkillers. Childbirth in the first century was a risky event. But God endured the shame, the risk, in order to bring us back to Eden.
As Mary grunted and pushed, heaven came crashing down to earth, and Joseph received the Son of God, the snake-crushing Messiah, the illegitimate child into his arms. First some hair, and then the head. Shoulders and arms, legs and feet. The One who made the stars passed through the birth canal and into Joseph’s nervous hands. Joseph slashed and tied the umbilical cord, wiped the blood and birth away from the child’s eyes, and helped his helpless son to expel the remaining fluid from His lungs. Cradling this eight-pound miracle, he watched the breath of life expand the baby’s chest, and an urgent wail pierced the courtyard and spooked the sheep. After nursing the child to soothe His fear, Mary wrapped her son—God’s Son—in cloth, and with no crib nearby, she laid Him in a feeding trough.
A feeding trough.
The One who spoke the universe into existence, who reigns over the nations, who commands history, who created you and me in His own image chose to be laid in a box where animals ate grain. The One who formed galaxies and molded the earth suckled the breast of a fifteen-year-old unwed Jewish girl in a small village of a backwater province of the Roman Empire.
Jesus, in other words, identifies with the marginalized. Sinless, sweet baby Jesus was born into an outcasted family dripping with scandal and shame. The reputation would be hard to shake. Jesus would be known as the bastard son of a promiscuous woman (John 8:41), a drunk and a glutton (Matt. 11:19), a demon-possessed fraud (Matt. 12:24) who spent way too much time drinking with criminals and rabble-rousers (Luke 5:29-31). Jesus became so friendly with sinners that all the religious leaders thought He was one. Jesus fits in best with the marginalized and outcasts because He was one.
Tis the season—to embody the Savior’s love toward non-churchy people whose lives and trajectories haven’t been spackled over with the crumbling plaster of religion.
*Much of this post is taken from chapter 8 of my book Scandalous Grace: A Book for Tired Christians Seeking Rest.
[i] Technically, Joseph was betrothed to Mary, not engaged to her. My use of the word fiancée is meant to modernize the ancient story. Betrothal meant that Joseph and Mary were legally bound in marriage; hence the ESV’s use of “wife” in Matt. 1:20, 24. However, couples were not allowed to engage in sexual activity during the betrothal period, and therefore Mary’s pregnancy would have been considered fornication by her onlookers.
[ii] See, for instance, the use of kataluma in Luke 22:11. Most scholars believe that kataluma refers to a spare room, or perhaps the only room in a one-room house, rather than a commercial inn. See John Nolland, Luke 1–9:20, vol. 35a of Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1989), 105–6.