In remembering the special details of the Christmas story, we find significance in deeper understanding of social and cultural contexts in seeing how God called the faithful to the stable. There are many different cultures at Hillcrest, and while the cultures carry different practices, the story of Christmas offers unique redemption and fulfillment to the human condition for those submitting to the design and will of God.
At Hillcrest we have been introducing the four major movements in Scripture each quarter. We identify these movements in nearly every chapel service: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. In Creation, we highlighted the reality of God in the world, showing that there needs to be a creative mind behind the universe because the universe is incredibly intricately designed. In the Bible, the Creator is both an all knowing force and a deeply personal being Who has designed humankind in His image. In the Fall, introduced after the first quarter of the academic school year, students paused to see the world as it is today. The world is deeply flawed, with brokenness and suffering forcing all in creation to fix the pain and struggle humankind is in.
From the Bible's explanation of the universe there is a need of blood sacrifice to atone for the brokenness of the world. In Genesis this is realized through the shedding of blood to make coverings for Adam and Eve after they ate the fruit of good and evil, causing them to realize their nakedness. God instituted a sacrifice system where Jewish religious leaders would sacrifice the blood of unblemished animals to open a right relationship between the nation of Israel and God.
In Christmas, the Fall is redeemed as Jesus comes to the world, entering time and space as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of all people. Jesus' presence on earth was first realized by a group of Jewish shepherds who were tending to the lambs that would be the sacrifices for followers of Judaism in temple practices in Jerusalem.
In the tradition of the Christmas story, these believing shepherds were called to see Jesus in a manger, because there was no room in the inn for Mary and Joseph to stay(Luke 2:7). It is likely that the room Jesus' family was seeking was a guest room, an upper room above a traditional home, like the one where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper.
Houses built during this time period were typically one story. The family made their home on the ground floor. If the family was poor, their flock of animals would be penned in at night in a section of the main floor with the family.
On the roof of the home, families would work, sleep on warm nights, and often use the flat surface for storage. Sometimes families would build a guest room. Some scholars believe that the room on the roof could also have been used as a bridal chamber for newlyweds, in which case it would have been logical for Joseph and Mary to stay in an upper room when they entered Bethlehem. Joseph likely had planned to stay with relatives in Bethlehem. He and Mary probably expected to stay in the guest bridal chamber. But when they arrived, it was occupied.
With Mary going into labor it would seem logical that Mary and Joseph would have had priority in the guest room, but with Mary’s pregnancy seen as scandalous, that likely wasn't the case. It seems more likely that tradition is correct, that the two were sent to a nearby cave, likely one belonging to the Levitical Jewish shepherds. Cultural context is very important here in our modern era where labor and birthing has a great deal of medical professional involved.
Most of the sheep raised in this area were destined to be sacrificed in Jerusalem, with Bethlehem being a few miles from the temple. The shepherds, who were mostly Levites from priestly families, brought the ewes into the caves to give birth when it was their time. The caves had to be kept ritually clean for the birthing process, in holding to the Jewish laws for animal sacrifices for the atoning of sins. The caves were in some ways sacred, where the shepherds would specifically care for the purity of the lambs that would be used for sacrifices. The caves would be a likely place to send Mary in her condition because of their cleanliness.
With Mary and Joseph in a cave that was ritually clean, fit for the birth of sacrifices, there were special elements in the cave to ensure the lambs would be kept without spot or blemish. Newborn lambs were inspected and, if without blemish, they were swaddled in clothes to keep them from injuring themselves as they thrashed around. Bandages for swaddling would have been in the cave when Mary and Joseph arrived, and would've been available to wrap Jesus in, under the same manner that the sacrificial lambs were.
So, when the angel told the shepherds that the baby was in the cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, laying in a manger, they saw this action under their cultural context. They knew these caves as places where future atonement of sins were birthed. The shepherds likely would've seen this as a significant sign. The story of the shepherds visiting Jesus is one that acknowledged Jesus' birth as the birth of a sacrifice for the atoning of sins.
Christmas operates in a historical framework that continues to have relevance and is deeply significant for the modern world. Humankind continues to work to redeem the world from brokenness, nearly to the point of exhaustion. The redemption of the world must come from outside the world, as believers recognize. This story of believers tending to the redemption of the nation of Israel through animal sacrifice, specifically the birth of sacrificial lambs, has deep significance for those who believe. While we work to reflect Jesus on earth, bringing about redemption in the world through caring for the poor and aligning our businesses to reflect God's design and order, we see that Jesus first came into the world and established a right way, the only way, to redemption and restoration.
As we move from the fall to redemption in the coming weeks as part of our theme this year in chapel, we ask that you continue to pray and support your school. We have a whole story where God not only creates, but has a redemptive plan being carried throughout Scripture and continues into our modern world that atones for the brokenness all in creation experience. Join us in resting in the deep message of God's abounding love that is understood in new and whole ways as we pause to consider the love of God in this special season. Merry Christmas, and may you realize the proximity of love that God offers you during this time.