The final candle of Advent lit, we prepare for Christ’s Nativity. The day of the Lord is near, a baby is soon to be born in Bethlehem. We know the details: Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, a babe in a manger, angels in the sky, scared shepherd. But in other ways, centuries of tradition keep us from really hearing the story.
- Mary didn’t ride into Bethlehem fully dilated in donkey-induced-labor. She gave birth while they were in Bethlehem (Luke 2:6), implying that they may have been there a while.
- There wasn’t an ‘inn-keeper’ because there was no ‘inn.’ “No room in the inn” was the classic King James Version rendering of Luke 2:7 and many other translations follow suit. The NIV renders κατάλυμα as guest-room. It is likely that Joseph had made arrangements to stay with relatives or friends, but the guest room was taken.
- Jesus wasn’t born in a barn. Yes I love the ‘living nativities, with their wooden stables under the starry skies. I love the traditional tales and pageants with shepherds and wisemen under the starry sky. But that is how it happened (and not just because the wismen weren’t there yet). It is likely that the ‘stable’ was the ground floor of a house. Homes in ancient Palestine often had a, slightly lower floor at the front entry where animals were brought in for the night (Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through the Middle East, 28-30). The Holy Family were jammed into a house with friends or family caring for them in their hour of need. Yes there was no guest room available, and Baby Jesus was laid in a manger, but they weren’t left out in the cold either.
- So Mary and Joseph weren’t abandoned to the elements. In ancient Palestine, caring for pregnant women would be a major cultural value (Bailey, 26). No one would have left them to fend for themselves in their hour of need, and even if they did, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth lived in a nearby village. Joseph and Mary had places to turn if they needed it. They could stay in Bethlehem because they were looked after.
The interior ground floor of a house doesn’t look as nice on a Christmas card. Our Christmas pageants and living nativities would be really different if this is how we depicted it. There is no problem with some of the imagination and whimsy surrounding this season as we contemplate Christ’s nativity, but I do think the real story (inasmuch as we can fill in details) opens up something for us.
Jesus was coming, they knew it. They made arrangements for shelter and protection, Mary and Joseph were recipients of hospitality not hostility. What are you doing to prepare a place for Christ’s coming? Has the rush of the season crowded Christ out? Are you in danger of leaving Mary and Joseph out in the cold? Or have you invited Jesus into the inner chamber of your home–a Savior waiting to be born?