Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622) Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_

Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard van Honthorst (1622)

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

There are certain stories in the Bible we have been told and re-told so many times that it seems almost unfathomable that we could garner from them any new insights. Among these, the narratives of the birth of Our Lord figure quite prominently.

Of course, the most beautiful insight of all has not been lost—that on that night, thousands of years ago, God himself entered physically not only into our world, but also into our experience as humans, so that we might know him, and so that he might both live and die for us—but there is so much more we are given in the Gospels than this apparently bare-bones account: stunning truths that do not detract from this extraordinary reality, but rather adorn it and, in so doing, reveal on an even deeper level the glory of God and His inestimable love for mankind.

Two details, in particular, have become rich sources of meditation for me of late and, though each stands alone in its own right as being profoundly meaningful, the combination of the two has been particularly powerful. The first is found in the simple reality of the scene itself.  We have long been told that Jesus was born in a stable, or even a cave, but in fact there is a good case made by NT scholar Ken Bailey that he was born in a one-room house typical of the peasantry at the time and still found in the region today. In these houses, not only did the whole family sleep together, but also the family livestock would be brought in at night for added warmth in the winter and protection from theft. As such, there would have been feeding troughs, or mangers, already built in to the structure of the house and it would have been into of these that Jesus was placed.

Supporting this claim is the fact that the two words often translated as room and inn, are not necessarily understood as such in the Greek. Topos is more generally translated as space and katalyma is not the word commonly used for inn, pandocheion.  In fact, Luke uses this same word in 22:10-12 to mean the guest room where the disciples are to prepare for what will be the Last Supper.  The understanding, then, would be that there was no space for them in the separate room affixed to some houses for guests, presumably because others were also there for the census (N.B. it was in such a room that Elijah stayed when staying with the widow of Zarapheth).

Although this is not the scene we are accustomed to imagining, it makes sense of many otherwise inexplicable details, notably how someone from the royal line of David, as was Joseph, would have apparently been turned out of all of the houses in a town where he would have had extensive family connections, or how a culture for which hospitality was central, could have been so egregiously negligent towards a pregnant woman, et al.

Whether this is the scene Luke actually has in mind, or in fact, Jesus was born in a cave or the open air, we cannot know. We only know that, in the words of Leon Morris, “everything points to poverty, obscurity, and even rejection.” It was into this environment that the Son of God was born and entrusted into the hands of Mary and Joseph, two poor, simple peasants, who otherwise would have gone completely unnoticed by the world.

The other detail that has captivated me of late is that of the shepherds, whose tale we find only in Luke. We are all aware of the fact that shepherds are typically simple and poor, but perhaps even more important than this is the fact that in Jewish culture they would have belonged to a despised class.  The very nature of their work would have kept them from observing the ceremonial law, which was so important to religious people, and their testimony was not even accepted in courts of law (Morris 101). And yet, it was to these simple, poor, despised individuals that the first announcement of the birth of the Son of God was made—not by just any messenger, but by an angel of the Lord.

Take a moment and think about the implications of this. It was into the hands of the simple, the poor, the despised and rejected that God entrusted not only the care of His most precious Son, but also the announcement of the extraordinary news of his birth, despite the fact that their testimony would not have been received (let alone believed) by many.

This is a reality that we all need to take on board, not only for our selves, but also for others. There is no one so simple, so despised that they are not to receive the extraordinary news of God’s love for them and his desire to bring them into a saving relationship with Himself, and so become messengers of that same news for others. We must pray for the grace to see others more clearly in this light, because it is the light in which the Lord sees them, just as he saw the shepherds.

Nor are there individuals who are so simple or whose lives are so obscure that they cannot be bearers of Christ in ways that powerfully impact not only the world around them, but also the world at large. To the contrary, we are all called to this, wherever we find ourselves.  We have only to say yes and make ourselves available to him, trusting that it is often in our poverty and simplicity that richness of his love and glory is made most manifest, just they were through Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds.


Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.