Week 4 – Women’s Advent Study – The Gift of the Baby! by Katrina Milligan
“While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she ‘gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.'” Luke 2:6-7 (NASB)
They finally arrived at Bethlehem. What a relief it must have been after five or more days of traveling to finally enter the city. Now they just needed to find a place to stay. All the inns are filled. My family and I had this same experience on our way home from our vacation this last summer. We were tired and thought we’d stop at one of the few bigger cities. We stopped at a hotel and because of a soccer convention in town, the hotel was full. My husband asked if they knew if there were any hotels with a vacancy. Nope, the whole town was booked. So, we went on. The next town had a different convention. We finally ended up at the same hotel that we had stopped at on the way out, same room, which we had been very pleased with. So, for us, things ended up fairly comfortably. But, Mary and Joseph didn’t end up with quite as nice accommodations. They finally found someone who felt sympathy for Mary being so very pregnant and said they could stay in the stable. We American’s have a quaint view of the stable. It’s a small horse barn, well kept and of course, very clean. Joseph had gone in and cleaned it up; Mary added a little female touch here and there and it ended up to be a lovely scene, right? Well, not quite. In all likelihood, the “stable” was not a wooden structure built above the ground. It was probably a cave. There is now a church built over where most historians believe Jesus was born. Watching a news special last night, they went into the grotto below the church, where you can reach your hand down through the floor and touch the actual cave bottom in which it is believed the holy family took refuge.
A cave is not a small barn. Kind of changes the picture a bit, doesn’t it? While on our vacation, we toured a cave, it was the beginning of June but in the cave you still needed at least a sweatshirt. Caves are dark, and damp, hardly a place that you would choose to have a baby. But, Mary and Joseph didn’t choose, they took the only shelter they could find. Taking shelter in caves was not an unusual practice. This is the type of place the shepherds would have stayed for protection from the elements while tending their herds.
After alternating between riding a donkey and walking, is it really any wonder that she would then go into labor? Anyone who has been pregnant or been friends with someone wanting to induce labor knows that walking is often what does it. When I go on a trip and finally arrive, I’m usually SO thrilled just to be able to rest, I’m exhausted. Poor Mary has been traveling all this time, she’s probably wiped out! I would imagine that she really just wants to sleep for a while. If it were me, I think I might be asking God, “Just let me sleep, just an hour or two, then I’ll be ready.” Whether she got a nap or not, she did give birth that night.
The normal practice was when labor began, Joseph would have sought the help of a mid-wife. Upon delivery, the umbilical cord would be cut, just as we do today, the nasal and mouth passages cleared out so the baby could breathe. They would have then washed with water and rubbed him with salt to guard against infection. Then he would be wrapped in swaddling clothes. These were strips of cloth that were wrapped around the child tightly enough that he could not move his arms or legs. They believed that if the child were not bound for at least six months to a year the bones would not grow straight.1
During the time they were in Bethlehem, Joseph had to go to register with the census officials. Mary could not have gone with him. According to Hebrew law, a woman was unclean for 40 days after giving birth to a male child, an additional 40 days for a female.1 So, Mary would have been spending time with Jesus, getting to know him, caring for him, forming a bond with him. When you care for a child it’s hard not to get attached and it doesn’t have to be your child. I’ve formed many bonds with children I baby-sat, cared for in day-care, my nieces and nephews, etc. Caring for someone forms bonds. While feeding, cleaning, and changing diapers, you learn to love that little person and get to know their personality. While you are doing all that because you love them, they, at the same time, are learning that they can trust you to care for them.
So, most likely Jesus came to this world in a cave. He was laid in a manger, probably not made of wood as we all imagine, because wood was not readily available. Instead, it was probably hollowed out of stone. It was padded with hay and became Jesus’ bed. When my children were little, the tags in the shirts were very uncomfortable for them. My daughter, Jessi, seemed especially sensitive to these things. It was Christmas time and I was cutting the tags out of their shirts. It occurred to me that this was a teaching moment. My children learned a very real thing about Jesus’ comfort that night. I asked them why they don’t like tags, they replied, “They’re itchy!” I explained to them that hay was not soft, it was itchy, and so it was kind of like sleeping on a bed of tags. I remember their eyes opened wide and they gave a kind of little shudder, and they understood. From that time on, Jesus didn’t sleep on hay; he slept on a bed made of a bunch of itchy tags! What makes your children feel itchy? Use this time to teach them something tangible they can relate to!
Jesus’ birth is not all that different from the burial process. The body is washed, herbs are used, and it is wrapped in strips of cloth, and placed in a cave, which served as tombs, graveyards if you will at the time. Why do I bring this up? Because when you boil it all down, the manger, as miraculous as it is, does not bring salvation. Without the cross, the story of his birth wouldn’t change our lives so much. He allowed himself to come to earth as a helpless baby. Why? He was with God, he IS God, why would he allow himself to take such a helpless form? Why did he allow himself to be hung on a cross? Because he loves you and I SO much that he allowed himself to die on a cross so that we could be saved, so that we could live with him eternally. After his birth, wise men came and brought gifts to the baby. They didn’t realize they were the ones really receiving the gift. Do you realize the gift you received that first Christmas night? The real question for us then is: what do we do with this gift? The gift of salvation is ours; all we have to do is accept it. When we do, we are each called to serve in different ways. To use the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit gives us when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. HE came here to live and die for YOU and I, we each have a job to do. We can not take the baby in the manger gifts as the magi did, but, we can return his love by serving with the gifts he has given us, daily. How is He calling you to serve? Are you serving in obedience? I hope so, if you are, you know real joy and peace, no matter what goes on in your life, in the world, that’s the miracle that stays with us always.
May the peace of the Christ child be with you today and always.