I really enjoy challenging our thinking, questioning what we think we know. As the saying goes, “don’t believe everything you think.” It’s pretty incredible how an urban legend can become fact and just a few short years later, everybody who’s anybody just knows it’s the truth and that’s how it’s always been.
Scripture is really a wonderful gift to have because one can go back and have a look at what we think we know. Wait, did God really say? Too bad Eve didn’t have a bible handy….
So the legend of Mary, pregnant, riding a donkey into Bethlehem is actually not really in the bible. It is sheer speculation on our part, often depicted in beautiful works of art, but not a fact clearly stated in the bible.
It’s a bit funny, but having been pregnant four times, I have always doubted the donkey tale. It sounds like something men would dream up, something that sounds kind and protective, but of course if you’ve ever ridden on a donkey…..while pregnant…. Uh, yeah. She would a have been far more comfortable just walking.
Ironically, walking would have been really good for her health too, and sure to make her labor easier. I don’t like the idea of a very pregnant woman on a forced march to get herself to a census, but in fact that could a have been quite good for her, sure to trigger labor and make it much shorter and safer.
They were not dirt poor, either. Mary was forced to give birth in a stable, in a barn, not because they were too poor, but because there was no room in the inn. They had money for lodging, it’s just that the town was overflowing with people and there were no vacancies.
This tugs at our heart-strings too, but in truth it was a real Godsend, literally. It was probably far safer for Mary to give birth in a barn than in the Inn. The Inn would a have been full of people germs, pretty unsanitary at the time. As dirty as we know barns to be, people are not as vulnerable to the germs from animals. In truth, the safest place to give birth to a baby back then, may well have been a barn.
They were not dirt poor, but they also weren’t rich either. That’s another Godsend, because if they had been well off, they may have sent for a doctor, a midwife, long before germ theory and good hand washing practices were well-known.
Jewish people however, due to religious cleanliness laws, did surprisingly well compared to others at the time.
However, at several points in history, nearly one-fourth of all moms died ether in child-birth or soon after, and nearly half of all children died before the age of five. Often the best person to deliver a baby was the dad whose germs the mom was already immune to. Also, dads who weren’t doctors were seldom rushing from disease and infection carrying all those germs with them on their clothing before arriving to deliver babies.
The nativity tale may well offend our delicate Western sensibilities, but if one were to design a birth today in the finest birthing center possible, one dedicated to the mom and baby’s well-being, one backed by science, she just might have been kept walking right up until delivery, dad would deliver the baby at home, and all medical help would be kept right outside so as to reduce the amount of unnecessary exposure to germs and medical interference.
Two thousand years ago in this perfect confluence, the most ideal birthing situation possible for the times was laid out for Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. It was a birthing situation so perfect for the times, it actually kind of puts the modern West to shame, the US still having one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the developed world.
(Those mortality rates are very, very low compared to undeveloped countries that lack prenatal care, but still high among the modern West.)
To add to the curiosity, Luke 2:11-12 tells us, “Today in the City of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord! And this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
When we hear of swaddling clothes we tend to think of dirty old milk rags, something filthy drug out of the barn in desperation so the baby would not be left naked. It is highly unlikely however, that Mary would not have brought something with her, would not have been nesting all those months before, as moms to be are want to do.
In truth, back in the day, babies were actually salted down, salt being a great disinfectant for new umbilical cords, so bathed in salt and swaddled at birth. There was another meaning behind salting a baby too, it established paternity. A child who was claimed by his Father was always salted and swaddled.
Ezekiel 16:4 gives us a clue into this practice, this tradition, by launching a great insult, “And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all.”
That’s a fancy way of accusing someone of being an unwanted child of questionable parentage.
Not true of the Christ child. “And this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” That “sign” meant so much more than we see at first glance, it meant the child was wanted, known, and claimed by His Father.
When I was younger I could only see the suffering and hardship in the a nativity scene, a couple doomed to extreme poverty, God placing the mother of His own child on the back of a donkey making her even more miserable than necessary, eventually forcing her to give birth homeless, in a shed. In the middle of a…Northern winter with blowing winds, snow, and….. evergreens and Holly.
I saw God basically rejecting His own child and Mary too, leaving them defenseless and at the mercy of the world. God as an absent and uncaring Father.
It took a long time for me to gain the eyes to see the story as it really is, as a perfect confluence of events so kindly and gently orchestrated by a loving God so as to protect them all, to fulfill prophecy, to ensure their very survival. They were not alone, abandoned, the victims of unfortunate events, they were placed into position exactly as God wanted it, so as to assure their well-being and the survival of that Holy Child.
It’s a bit funny, but the first step in perceiving the Nativity with fresh eyes required me to slay that darn donkey. It never ceases to amaze me how once piece of the puzzle placed falsely can change your whole perspective.
And so the truth of the tale is actually to be found in Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”