Christmas Eve.22 “Why?”
Why? Why did it go down this way? Why did he come in the dark, the middle of the night? Why this particular time? Why Bethlehem? Why is he born in a stable? Why laid in a manger? Why is there no room for him in the inn? Why the angels? Why a Savior? Why the shepherds? Why the hurry, why race to Bethlehem?
Well, it goes down this way because it’s the way God decided to do it. He does as he pleases, dontcha know?—all for his glory and for our delight. He came in the dark because that’s the way we’d made the world—dark. The Roman Empire, 1st century—it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But mainly it was a… dark time.
Sauron had nothing on the Roman Caesars of the 1st centuries BC and AD. They were a cruel, tyrannical lot. Sure, they brought roads, aqueducts, modern accounting, novel medical practices, law, order—an ethos. But, most of all, they brought oppression, tyranny, and new and brutal ways to control people. Yeah; those Roman Emperors were serious control freaks. They had… issues.
Paul says, in Galatians, it was the “fullness of time” when Christ was born of Mary. “Full” in the sense that we’d had about as much as we could take of sin, darkness, tyranny, and control. A dark shadow lay over the whole world. The same word, BTW is used of Mary in vs. 6. Literally in Greek “her full time came to be delivered”. You moms (and dads) know what the 9th month of pregnancy is like—full to bursting, ready to be delivered. As with Mary, so with our world. Time for new birth; time for deliverance.
So he came in the middle of the night, into our darkness to lighten it, to give new life by his birth.
Why Bethlehem? Because it is the city of David, his hometown. And David was a Christ too, an anointed one. Born poor and lowly to parents of no particular distinction, a shepherd—which was about the lowest class there was. Pastoral nomads, wanderers. But also hidden talents there, with David. A giant-killer. A King. Like Strider in “Lord of the Rings”.
And Bethlehem because: Caesar made everyone go to their hometown to be counted for taxing because they collected taxes by districts, not individual income tax returns like we do. The fact Mary was 9 months pregnant did not matter to Roman tax accountants. You go, girl; Joseph, too. So they came up from Galilee, from Nazareth (and everywhere was “up” from there 😉 to Bethlehem for the birth because of Rome’s need for order and control. And because they were of the house of David, because God planned it all that way. Bethlehem, BTW, has another meaning that we’ll get to at the end…
Why is he born in a stable? Well because there was no room in the inn, but also, I think, for a deeper reason: because everything in this story, the Greatest Ever Told, has divine meaning, deeper than you’ll ever know. But it is that divine meaning, that mystery, in which all the glory, all the splendor, all the wonder of it all lies.
No detail is insignificant in God’s stories. And he has a wry sense of humor. David, his great grandfather, was a shepherd and, plying that trade, David would not have lived in a house, but in tents, under the stars, sometimes in the temporary stables they’d find for the sheep. They were pastoral nomads, moving with the seasons from one grazing spot to another. Caves were favorite temporary stables, which is probably what this stable in Bethlehem was; some shelter from the elements.
Where else would a shepherd be found but with his sheep, in a stable? It underscores his real identity and vocation—King, to be sure. Warrior? Oh, yes!—he comes to kick butt, for sure! Priest? That too, with the once for all sacrifice to offer. But Shepherd is his main identity. Like Batman, it’s what he does that defines him. So the birth in the stable, the place shepherds would often make their bed for the night is the perfect place for his birth.
Why is he laid in a manger for a crib? Ah, now we’re getting at the beating heart of the story! You get the manger bit and you get… everything. It will all come clear, the mystery, the wonder, the reason for the season.
A manger is literally a feeding trough for flocks and herds. Simply put: Jesus is laid in a manger because he came to be food for us, his sheep. He is the Bread of Heaven (as he says in John 6) and unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we have no life in us. For his flesh is food indeed, and his blood is drink indeed. So he is laid in a manger to show the reason for the season, the purpose in his coming.
Because: more than the darkness of the times, the tyranny and oppression, the meanness and brutality of life, what really gnaws at our insides is hunger—the hungering dark as Fred Buechner called it. We are literally starving to death. Ever since we ate the forbidden fruit with our first parents in Eden we have been dying of hunger. Jesus comes to feed us food which endures to eternal life and puts an end to the hungering dark inside us.
And this is why there is no room for him in the inn. Because no earthly house can hold the immensity that Jesus—the True and Only God—is! Heaven itself cannot contain him! But a manger, a feeding trough for flocks and herds will hold him just fine! Just as a little bit of bread, a sip of wine, encompasses the fullness of the deity for us.
Why the angels singing glory in the highest? Because the Heavenly Story needs heaven-sent messengers! “There is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” A Savior who is God and man? Yes! Don’t try to understand, just let art and wonder flow over you. Be a child, again, opening your presents on Christmas morning.
“Saved ‘chu from what?” Well from yourself, first of all. From sin, death, and the power of the devil. Yeah, from all of that.
Why shepherds? Why tell them first? Because they are not the Great and the Good. They are humility achieved, out in the fields, plying David’s trade. The Greatest Story Ever Told works from the bottom up, not the top down. Besides—who better than shepherds to grasp the news of a Shepherd King, a new Strider, humbly born to kick the devil’s tail?
And so, of course, they hurry; they run to the manger, leave their sheep, and come. They come with gentle kings and people all. They literally run for their lives. Because the world is born anew in that humble stall.
And because they are… hungry. The hungering dark gnaws at their insides; and here is food, the Bread of Heaven, the Medicine of Immortality—that fills humanity’s deepest need.
BTW: the literal meaning of the Hebrew word “Bethlehem” is—house of bread! The Lord came to make a feast, of rich wines on the lees. Everyone who comes to him comes to feed on him. Unless you eat his flesh and drink his blood, you have no life in you, he says. Here is the real reason for the season.
Are you not hungry, too? The hungering dark, devouring you from the inside out, is satisfied only at his Table. And you (like the shepherds) have literally come to Bethlehem, tonight. Because here, at this manger, Jesus feeds you, for real, his body and blood—the Bread of Heaven, Soul’s Delight, vanquishing the sin, death, and dark in you. So; come and feed, for he is endless. Merry Christmas! Amen.