By Chris Thompson
The day my first child was born, my wife and I rolled out of our soft Serta bed around 4:00 o’clock in the morning, before calling the hospital to let them know we were on our way to the delivery room. My wife, knowing she had time to spare, took a shower, as I woke up our older children and readied them for the trip across town to welcome their baby sister.
A bit tired but excited, we walked through the doors of the emergency room at Mercy Southwest Hospital about 5:00 o’clock a.m. The nursing staff led us to a well decorated, large delivery suite where my wife found comfort in the over-sized bed in the middle of the room.
My wife’s parents made it to the hospital within an hour, and we all tried to entertain the older children through what would be a long day of waiting. I went downstairs and bought the kids lunch while her parents stayed with her to talk her through the pains. We watched Sponge Bob on the delivery room TV and read magazines to kill the time.
Somewhere around 2:00 o’clock p.m.,the anesthesiologist was summoned to administer drugs that took the edge off the pain my wife was feeling from hours of contractions. At 4 pm, the head nurse told us that in one hour we would have a baby girl, and about one hour later she and the rest of the nursing staff came into the room to prep the area for a newborn. Five minutes later, we heard the first cries from Samantha.
My wife cried as they placed our little girl on her chest. We spent the next hour taking pictures and building memories of our first moments together as a family. What a snapshot of time I will never forget.
Many years ago, another family went through childbirth under a bit more unusual conditions. This couple was much younger than Kelly and I when they were while with child. Even more unusual for the time period, the child was not his. He had thought about separating from her when he found out she was pregnant, but he remained committed to her as separating would have forced a stigma upon her that could have led to her public death.
As my family and I drove 5 miles to the hospital on the day Samantha was born; they walked to their destination. Rather, he walked and she rode on the best form of transportation they had. With a donkey as her charter, I can only imagine the discomfort of the trip. I know my wife was not very comfortable riding in our Ford Explorer to the hospital, and I’d expect a great amount of displeasure riding a donkey while in the late days of the ninth month of pregnancy.
For many days they rode.
It seems as if they were running late on their trip to the City of David to take part in the census; no woman in the ninth month moves very fast. Crossing desert terrain undoubtedly made the trip seem longer. As my wife took her time getting ready early that morning, Mary must have also done what she could to ready herself for the trip, looking to take with her everything she could fit on the livestock.
Uncertain of what the days ahead would hold, the couple must have thought it possible that their child would be born on this trip. It was easy to see they were one of the last to arrive in town as almost everyone else called to the city was already there. With no reservations made for their stay, they needed a room for the time they would be in town. Door after door they knocked on, looking for warm sanctuary. All of the rooms were full of people from out of town and nothing could be found. I’m sure he pleaded and used her pregnancy to try to sway innkeepers into finding a room for them.
It wouldn’t surprise me if many innkeepers felt bad when they turned the couple away. Seeing a woman laboring with child, good chance their hearts would have melted having to shut the door, denying them a room. Knock after knock, the couple found nothing. No rooms were available, until one hotel manager came up with an idea.
All he had was a stable out back. A place where he kept his livestock. The young couple could have kept looking for a room, but when you are this tired and cold, any place to lie down is better than continuing to ride a donkey. I don’t know if they paid to use this stable, but I hope not. No one in our current day-in-age would think about trading currency for the privilege to stay the night out back with the mules.
Their lighting must have been limited in the stable. There may have been a torch, but not much light. They would have had to lay down their own animal and find a safe place to rest among the sheep and horses. The barn-like structure couldn’t help insulate them much from the midnight chill, considering the building was not designed to comfortably house people. Suffering through the cold, they had to try to find some soft, clean hay to lie on for the night. Clean hay, something we consider both easy to come by and unsuited for a newborn baby, would have been a commodity as the animals had first right to the straw and undoubtedly used it for natural purposes.
At some point, she said to him that it was time. No doctor was around, nor a cozy bed to lie back on while in labor. No drugs to take over the pain. No coach to help with breathing. The animals would have watched this private moment, and those who actually slept in the nearby lodge may have been awakened from the screams of a natural childbirth.
He had no idea what to do or what to say. He had never been through childbirth before. He could have run, but he didn’t. He was committed to her and had been reassured from above that this was his destiny. Certainly he would have done his best to comfort her in this trying time. From this moment on he was a father and knew his responsibility was to raise this child the best he could.
The cleanest water would have been from a trough from which the animals drank. The newborn may have been washed with this water as he cried. The water would have been cold, and it would have been dirty. The child may even have been wiped down by the clothes off the back of his earthly father.
Tired from the long journey, weakened from child birth, and longing for reprieve, she must have looked trustingly to him for comfort and care for their newborn child. They had no formula, no pacifier, and no warming bin to place the child into for the night. The best he could find for his son was a manger.
Our culture shows us a much different idea of a manger than what I suspect they found that night. We think of a manger as a sturdy, wooden structure filled with clean hay with a plastic doll lying comfortably inside. In reality, a manger is no more than a feed bin for animals, often made from a hollowed log. This is where the innkeeper’s dirty animals slobbered as they fought for grain and hay. Joseph may have cleaned out the all the wet hay he could see while in the dimly lit stable as he tried to make a soft place for his son to sleep. After wrapping him in whatever cloth strips he could find, he laid his son in the cold trough. This animal feeder, the place where the innkeeper placed hey for his stock would become a bed; it was the best bed available that night for a newborn child.
Despite the couple’s exhaustion, the boy would have cried as newborn do. Joseph must have been teary as he looked at his wife and son that night. I imagine his feelings were complex when he considered their circumstances. If Joseph ever imagined the birth of his son, this can’t be what he thought that life-changing moment would be like. On this, the most vulnerable day of their lives, they found themselves proud new parents staying in a shed filled with animals and animal waste.
Shivering, they tried to sleep.
When my daughter was born, I took pictures with my cell phone and sent them to family and friends. Photos of Samantha were on Facebook before she even made it home from the hospital. Over the next few days, many acquaintances stopped by our home to see our baby girl. Our friends brought food and warm wishes as they spent time holding our new daughter. Mary and Joseph didn’t have cell phones. They, unknowingly, had angels.
That night, in the nearby hills were shepherds keeping watch over their flock. These men were seen as low in status to others in the town, yet these were the men that angels sought. While in the field that night, the glory of the Lord shone about them, and they were afraid.
And the angel said unto them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger”.
After a long day of work, the shepherds smelled bad, were unshaven and dirty, and came to see the child wearing working clothes. Of all the people on earth picked to see the Messiah that night, these lowly men were the only ones summoned by a multitude of heavenly hosts.
I wonder if the couple was startled to find dirty men with the stench of sheep outside the barn waiting to see their child in the early hours of the morning. Maybe they questioned who sent them, and how they knew of the birth. Protecting his family, Joseph may have been hesitant to let them in to see his new son. Where did they come from? Who are these strangers? Why did they wake us? What do they want?
Within a short time, other travelers arrived to meet the child. These men were sent from the east, following faith and stars after being summoned to the region by the heavenly Father. Bringing neither food nor clothes, these men bore gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. All three of these gifts were suitable for a king and would not have been gifted to a common man. The arrival of these guests and their gifts may have been the moment Joseph realized this event was more than a birth of a baby. This was a gift given to all of mankind.
The stars led the way for wise men, the angels led shepherds, and the world was about to know that He was born. He was not born in a hospital, not in an urgent care, not in a home, but rather in a dirty, cold stable behind a packed motel. In a tiny town, a baby was born to a couple that knew what they were chosen for, but human nonetheless. They must have wondered if this was the way God intended this birth to happen.
By the standards of our current day, this would be a horrible way for a child to come into our world. Even then, I’m sure this was far from the traditional story of birth. A dark night, cold weather, damp hay, dirty animals, no medical care, and late night visits from strangers, make for a story that will live for ages. Knowing this humble beginning was the earthly dawn of all our salvation, this night, from many years ago, will continue to be known as the most important night and most important childbirth for all of man. For unto all of us, and for all of us, that night, a child was born.