Summary: A babe, lying in a manger.
A REMARKABLE SIGN
It is interesting this year to be revisiting the Gospel of Luke, with Luke’s impeccable, almost classical Greek style. As we return to the all-too-familiar account of the birth of Jesus, it is humbling to discover that some of the imagery of earlier sermons has fallen short of Luke’s eye for detail in what is, after all, an unashamedly Jewish account, written against the backdrop of the Old Testament world.
As a good reporter, Luke had no doubt interviewed locals who referred to Bethlehem as “the city of David” (Luke 2:4). [Surely it is Jerusalem which is referred to elsewhere as ‘the city of David’ (1 Chronicles 11:5)?] Bethlehem was David’s ancestral home, and because Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David” it was where Joseph and his pregnant “espoused wife” had to report for the taxing (Luke 2:5).
It has always amazed me when I have visited churches at home and abroad just how readily some people give hospitality. I have not seen the hospitality of the Middle East (having never been there), but I have seen the hospitality of Scotland, England, and India. It would have been unthinkable if there was not some relation who could have found space for Joseph of Bethlehem, of the line of David!
Whilst out walking alone in Scotland one day, I stumbled upon the foundations of what had quite evidently been a small village. I understood from the history and archaeology of the area that the arrangement had been that the single-room living areas of each small house had been shared with the family’s livestock. In another place that my family were visiting, we were shown the foundation of a building to which had been appended, in later years, a separate room for the maiden aunt.
This was not Bethlehem, but it might inform our understanding of what the arrangement was in that place. When we read “there was no room in …” (Luke 2:7), the word which Luke uses is the same as he uses with reference to the famous ‘upper room’ where Jesus shared the Passover with His disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 22:10-12). According to the history and archaeology of Bethlehem, the “manger” was apparently located between the family room and the “stable” at the furthest end from the full “guest-chamber” (Luke 2:7).
The translation ‘inn’ in Luke 2:7 is a mistake. If Luke wished to suggest that it was a commercial inn that was full, he had the word: he used it in his account of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33-35). It was the guest-chamber that was full, and that was why Mary was at the livestock end of the building, and laid baby Jesus “in a manger” (Luke 2:7).
Wherever Joseph and Mary stopped, contrary to popular opinion, it was some days before the birth of Jesus: and it was while they were there that the days were accomplished that she should be delivered (Luke 2:6). Enough days, perhaps, to fill in the tax return, catch up with friends and relatives - and maybe even have them help out with the birthing at the other end of the house?
As the narrative proceeds, the next people to enter the nativity scene were the lowly, ‘unclean’ shepherds, fresh from the fields that night. When they saw “the babe, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:16), they told their wonderful testimony (Luke 2:17). An angel had told them that there was one born “in the city of David, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11), and that the sign they were to expect was just this: “the babe in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger” (Luke 2:12).