Imagine walking to Durango.
Imagine doing so with your 13-year-old new bride, while you are only 16.
Imagine that your wife is nine months pregnant, and you have no medical training or experience in delivering babies.
Imagine that you are away from all family, friends, and acquaintances. Would you be afraid, concerned, or stressed out? Would you curse the government that was forcing you to take this journey at such an inconvenient time, would you wonder at God’s obvious lack of control over your circumstances, or just chalk it up to your usual bad luck?
We cannot know for sure Joseph and Mary’s ages — but common Jewish practices of the day suggest they were very young. We are given none of the thought processes that went through their minds as they quietly obeyed Quirinius’ decree that forced their trek to Bethlehem. Rome was never famous for compassion or patience; it prided itself on brutally enforcing obedience.
It must have been a difficult journey, a slow and exhausting process. We are not told whether Mary had a donkey to ride on — after all, they were so poor that they could only afford the offering for Jesus’ dedication for those who lived below the poverty level, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. It is also very easy to believe that there would be a compassionate friend or neighbor who would gladly loan a donkey to this very young couple as they headed off on their journey of more than 70 miles. Normal travelers could cover up to 40 miles in a good day; this was not a normal couple, and we do not know if any of the days of their travel were good ones. It had to take at least two days, and realistically most likely took many more. We don’t know if they travelled alone, or whether they might be in the company of fellow villagers who were headed in the same direction — scripture is silent on that question. In fact, the scriptures are silent on many of the questions that naturally come to our minds in the Christmas story, and so we are left to our imagination — tempered by the understanding of the customs and habits of Israeli life during those days.
We do know that Joseph and Mary would have had to take everything that they needed for the journey as there were no hotels, at least as we know them, on the route they would take. Perhaps they found the home of a compassionate family who offered them a place to lay their head for the evening. Jewish customs of the day demanded hospitality; it was considered a person’s most sacred duty. There would be no such thing as turning away a brother or sister of the covenant, especially to one in such condition as Mary. We would expect that Mary and Joseph accepted the hospitality of many such homes during their journey, even though we are not told that they spent the night in any home.
What we are told is that while they were there the time came for her to give birth, and she wrapped her firstborn Son in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger. The hills around Bethlehem are full of natural caves, and stabling animals has been their common use for centuries. It is commonly believed that Joseph and Mary were in one of those caves when Jesus was born. If the weather was good most of the animals would probably be outside on the green hillsides, eating the grass that was abundant during that time of the year because it is the rainy season.
We cannot be sure who was there to witness the birth of the Christ, but it is possible that animals did look on in wonder as their Creator entered the human race. What is not so commonly known is that also intermixed with those stable-caves were caves that were used as burial sites, family caves that were used to house the family members who had died. By Jewish practice a person would be buried the same day in which they died in the family cave, and roughly a year later the bones would be placed in an ossuary — a small stone coffin — for permanent storage so that the cave would be ready for the next family member who passed on. Because of the proximity of stable-caves to burial caves, it was common for burial shrouds—cloth material that was used to wrap the dead—to be stored in those stables, on ledges or in niches that were carved in the stable walls. It was common for a funeral procession to stop by a stable-cave on the way to the burial cave to pick up the cloth that would be used to wrap the body before it was placed in the family’s burial cave. That also helps us to better understand why the shepherds were told to look for this sign: you will find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Swaddling clothes are not baby clothes—that would not be much of a sign as all newborn babies would be wrapped in baby clothes. But to look for a baby that was wrapped in burial cloths and lying in a manger, that indeed would be unusual — that would truly be a sign! It would also tell the shepherds that they were not to look in homes for this sign, as burial cloths would not be stored in homes, and not all homes would have mangers in them. The shepherds would know instantly to look in the stable-caves that were around the burial caves on the hillsides near Bethlehem. It was there that they found Him, wrapped in burial cloths. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Jesus was wrapped in the very same clothes on the first day of His life as He was on the last day of His life.
It perfectly pictures the reason why He came: He was born to die. Even though His brief life was so very important, it was through His death that He conquered death, removed its sting, and once and for all banished it from our existence. Yes, we may die one day, but we never have to fear death because Jesus championed death, and through His resurrection He demonstrated to the world that He is indeed the Son of God. As you pause this Christmas to wonder at the Babe in the manger, I hope you will remember that He was wrapped in burial cloths for you. He came to take your place on that cross.
I hope that you know Him as more than just the Baby of Christmas. I hope you know Him as Savior of your life, Savior of your soul, Savior of your eternity.
If you would like to ponder the Christ Child wrapped in burial cloths together with us this Christmas Eve, we would love to have you join us for our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at Centerpoint, beginning at 6 p.m.
This short service will be filled with Christmas carols, special music, a very brief message from God’s word, and a time of reflection and wonder as we celebrate the birth of the Light of the world by holding a candle that pictures that Light. May your Christmas be filled with the joy, love and hope that Jesus brought into the world when He came, and may you experience it throughout the entire year.