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From Chris's Heart

December 2012
The First Christmas
by Nick Harris

There are many misunderstandings today about the events surrounding the first Christmas. For one thing Jesus was not born in an out building behind a motel in Bethlehem as many Christmas cards seem to suggest. The truth is this: Jesus was born in a cave used for the birthing of sacrificial lambs. The male lambs born in that cave, and others like it in the Bethlehem area, were to be used exclusively in the Temple. They were set-aside to be the TAMIL, or the morning sacrifices which began each day. They were also used for the burnt offerings. The female lambs were used in the Temple for peace offerings.

However, the most common usage for these lambs that were born in Bethlehem was this: they were destined to become Passover lambs. Therefore, the shepherds that attended them were actually shepherd-priests. These men had been designated from the time they were very young to be the ones who would be assigned the task of "keeping watch” over the Temple’s flocks. One of their tasks was to make certain that none of these lambs were blemished while being birthed.

According to the Mishnah, these lambs were immediately wrapped in "swaddling cloths" after their births to protect them from injury, since baby lambs tend to thrash about and harm themselves in their first couple of hours of their lives. The shepherds who attended these lambs, being under special rabbinical care, were also required to keep their birthing caves ritually clean.

Since there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the local caravansary, these young people were allowed to occupy one of these birthing caves in the hillside. That birthing cave is now found beneath the ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. According to the Gospel account, as soon as Jesus was born, Joseph wrapped him in swaddling cloths.

No doubt, Joseph could not have understood the full significance of the swaddling cloths in which he wrapped the infant Jesus. You see, swaddling cloth was primarily used to wrap the body of someone who had died, so Joseph’s actions told this story: in this cave in the Judean hillside, the young Lord of the universe lay in a stone manger, wrapped in grave clothes. This action was taken, according to the angel of the Lord, to be a sign to the shepherds who would come to visit Him. It offers a sign to us, as well. This sign was this: this was a child who had been born to die. His heavenly Father wanted the world to know the reason for his son becoming flesh.

The entire scene seems so illogical, does it not? Logic would seem to dictate that when the Lord of the universe, the Almighty God, chose to enter into the life of this world, He would have elected to have been born in absolute luxury and splendor. We would think that he would have chosen a palace in Rome, or Alexandria, or Antioch, or Ephesus. But He did not! He chose to be born in a cave that was carved into the side of a Judean hillside. Even the lowest peasants were born in better places than this. It is a shocking tale, is it not?

After Mary had given birth to Jesus in this cave, after Joseph wrapped him in swaddling cloths, he then took the infant Jesus and cut His umbilical cord. He now required a place to lay the child so that he could wash away the afterbirth, but all he could find was a stone feeding trough or manger, where the baby lambs were laid after being born. So, Joseph laid the young lord of the universe in this stone manger and thoroughly washed his body with salt water. Then, he scrubbed the baby with salt. The salt would kill any bacteria that might be found on the child. Great symbolism was attached to this action in the time of Jesus. For the Jewish people of that day, salt represented truth and honesty. This act on the part of a Jewish father indicated a determination to raise this child is such a way that his words would be “salted.” In other words, when this child became an adult, he would say what he meant and mean what he said. He would speak truthful words.

Once those tasks were completed, it was then that Joseph wrapped those strips of swaddling cloth around the body of this baby, as we previously illustrated. However, this raises a question: from where did Joseph get the swaddling cloth? There are two possible answers. The first possibility has to do with a social custom practiced at that time. In the days of Mary and Joseph, people in the Middle East who had to travel for a long distances were often faced with great hardship and danger. Travelers died in a variety of ways: accidents, assaults by robbers, and illnesses. Since the Jewish law declared that a body had to be buried in the earth immediately following death, pious traveling Jews were required to wrap long strips of swaddling cloth around their waists, so if they died along the way, the swaddling wrapped about their waists could be used for a burial shroud. Perhaps the righteous Joseph had taken this precaution.

The second possibility has to do with the place in which Jesus was born. As has previously been suggested, Jesus appears to have been born in a birthing cave for sacrificial lambs. Since these lambs were wrapped in "swaddling cloths" immediately after their birth, the shepherds who attended these lambs may have left the swaddling cloth in the cave.

Of course, we know none of this for certain; all we know is that within a few moments of the birth of the Messiah, God had dispatched shepherds to come and pay homage to the one destined to bring "peace on earth, goodwill to men."

A merry Christmas and a happy New Year to all of you who help support this ministry.

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