The time came for the baby to be born, and [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luke 2:6–7)
I wonder if you spotted something different in this reading? Instead of ‘no room . . . in the inn’ we had ‘no guest room’. It’s a recognition that the Greek word traditionally translated ‘inn’ is better translated as ‘guest room’. It makes more sense because given that Joseph was of the line of David he could probably have knocked on almost any door, listed his ancestry, been identified as a distant relative and been offered a room.
What seems likely is that the house where Joseph and Mary planned to stay had only two rooms: one for the family and one for the guests.
For some reason – possibly the census – the guest room was full. The only alternative was the lower part of the house, where the animals were usually kept. Of all the traditions associated with Jesus’ birth, one of the most reliable is that he was born in a cave, and it’s quite likely that the lower part of the house would have been cut in a cave-like way from the rock.
So, the baby is born, wrapped in strips of cloth and placed in the manger – the animal feed trough. That this was highly unusual is suggested by the shepherds being told that ‘the baby in a manger’ is a sign.
With Jesus’ birth we come to something quite extraordinarily profound. Christian teaching is that, in this baby, God was somehow entering his own creation. The all-powerful Maker and Sustainer of everything – from tiniest bacteria to largest galaxy – is reduced to a few pounds of helpless flesh.
This is the extraordinary truth that we call the incarnation – that, in Jesus, God became one of us. It is an extraordinary descent from highest majesty to lowest insignificance, from unbelievable wealth to desperate poverty. What can we learn from this? Well, we get some idea of exactly how much God loves us; being born in this context set the pattern for the rest of Jesus’ earthly life.
There is another thing worth noticing – the phrase that Luke uses: ‘She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger . . . ’ At the end of Luke’s Gospel, in chapter 23, we read that Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body and ‘then he took the body down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock’. The parallel is very striking.
For our sake Jesus became the lowest of the low, quite literally from the cradle to the cross.