The significance of the stable birth in Bethlehem
Rite & Reason:Significant exponents of modern exegesis take the view that when Matthew and Luke say Jesus was born in Bethlehem, they are making a theological statement, not a historical one. In fact, these exegetes claim, Jesus was born in Nazareth.
By placing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the evangelists are thought to have refashioned history theologically, in accordance with the promises, so as to make it possible to designate Jesus, on the basis of his birthplace, as the long-awaited shepherd of Israel (cf. Micah 5:1-3; Matthew 2:6).
I do not see how a basis for this theory can be gleaned from actual sources. As far as the birth of Jesus is concerned, the only sources we have are the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The two evidently belong to quite distinct narrative traditions.
They are marked by different theological visions, just as their historical details are in some respects different.
Matthew apparently did not know that Joseph and Mary were both originally from Nazareth. Hence, on returning from Egypt, Joseph initially wants to go to Bethlehem and it is only the news that the son of Herod is reigning in Judea that causes him to travel to Gallilee instead.
For Luke, on the other hand, it is clear from the outset that the holy family returned to Nazareth after the events surrounding the birth.
The two different strands of tradition agree on the fact that Bethlehem was Jesus’s birthplace. If we abide by the sources, it is clear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth.
“And while they were there [in Bethlehem] the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:6f).
Let us begin our exegesis with the concluding words of this passage: there was no room for them in the inn. Prayerful reflection over these words has highlighted an inner parallel between this saying and the profoundly moving verse from St John’s Prologue: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not”(1:11).
For the Saviour of the world, for him in whom all things were created (cf Colossians 1:16), there was no room. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mathew 8:20). He who was crucified outside the city (cf Hebrews 13:12) also came into the world outside the city.
This should cause us to reflect – it points towards the reversal of values found in the figure of Jesus Christ and his message. From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms.
Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends.
So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being and, aided by that light, to find the right path.
Mary laid her newborn child in a manger (cf Luke 2:7). From this detail it has been correctly deduced that Jesus was born in a stable, in an inhospitable – one might even say unworthy – space, which nevertheless provided the necessary privacy for the sacred event . . .
We may imagine with what great love Mary approached her hour and prepared for the birth of her child. Iconographic tradition has theologically interpreted the manger and the swaddling cloths in terms of the theology of the Fathers.
The child stiffly wrapped in bandages is seen as prefiguring the hour of his death; from the outset, he is the sacrificial victim . . . The manger, then, was seen as a kind of altar.
Augustine drew out the meaning of the manger using an idea that at first seems almost shocking, but on closer examination contains a profound truth.
The manger is the place where animals find their food, but now, lying in the manger, is he who called himself the true bread come down from heaven, the true nourishment that we need in order to be fully ourselves. This is the food that gives us true life, eternal life.
Thus the manger becomes a reference to the table of God, to which we are invited so as to receive the bread of God. From the poverty of Jesus’s birth emerges the miracle in which man’s redemption is mysteriously accomplished.
This is an edited extract from the recently published Jesus of Nazareth, the Infancy Narratives, by Pope Benedict XVI