Whatever we say about conception (either Mary’s or Jesus’), Jesus’ birth was anything but immaculate. Never mind the manger. The Holy Family made the best of their circumstance. The stable wasn’t anything like the free-standing-structure in our traditional Christmas crèche. More than likely, it was the enclosed porch found at the entry of a traditional Palestinian house—the place where animals were locked up for the night. There was no inn keeper, or even an inn, in the contemporary sense, with a no-vacancy light flashing. There just wasn’t space in the guest room, someone was already staying there. The house was full, but their hosts found a way to accommodate Mary and Joseph. They set up a space in the stable area, turning their manger into a makeshift cradle for the child that would soon arrive(see Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, IVP Academic, 2008, p33-36).
But even if Jesus wasn’t born in a barn, and the stable area was made neat and tidy, births are messy affairs. I am a dad. I was there when each of my four kids were born. Their delivery rooms all had clean sheets and shiny floors, every surface super clean and sanitized. But then blood and amniotic fluid smeared and splattered during the happy chaos of delivery. Births are beautiful. I wouldn’t have missed any of my children’s births. Births are always messy.
We sanitize Christmas, don’t we? We’ve each given and received Christmas cards picturing the new born Jesus—ivory skin gleaming—his head crowned with a luminous glow. In reality, he was wrinkled and red and covered in vernix. The hair on his head, if he had hair, was matted with amniotic fluid, blood and meconium.
Perhaps we imagine a picturesque scene: The holy family gathered around the manger under the open air under the Bethlehem sky, cows and sheep gathered, watching reverently. The cattle are lowing and the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he made. But when Son of God took his first breath and the cool night air hit his lungs and, like all babies, he screamed, aware for the first time that his mother’s warmth no longer enfolded his whole person. He desperately cried for comfort. Mary held him up to her breast, and he latched for the first time.
With the awkwardness of all new parents, Mary and Joseph attempted to fasten a diaper on Jesus for the first time. He peed all over them. They forgot to pack a change of clothes. The Son of God began his earthly reign. It would be months before his parents had a decent night’s sleep.
This was like no other birth, but in so many ways it was exactly like every other birth. The promise and the joy of the Incarnation is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus’ birth was just as chaotic and messy as all other births. This was the day that God became fully human.