A plea to those who tell the Christmas story: when will we stop perpetuating nativity misconceptions and start proclaiming what the Gospels tell us concerning the birth of Jesus?
There was no inn, no innkeeper, no weary little donkey. Jesus was not born in a stable, but in a home. And the difference actually matters – to children and to adults.
The Gospel According to Luke tells us (chapter 2) that at some point in the second or third trimester of Mary’s pregnancy, she travelled to Bethlehem with her husband Joseph (nowhere is it suggested that they arrive on the night that she will give birth). Bethlehem is Joseph’s ancestral home. In that culture, where – and who – you came from mattered far more significantly than it does in my culture (which tells us that what matters is not your past, but your future, and you can be whatever and whoever you decide). That is what the biblical genealogies (such as the one in Luke 3) are all about. Even if Joseph no longer had immediate relatives in Bethlehem, simply by turning up and giving his genealogy – showing his ID – it is almost unthinkable that they would not find a welcome.
Moreover, Luke tells us that this – Bethlehem – is the city of David. That detail matters. Everyone anywhere knew that Jerusalem was the city of David – though Jerusalem has grown in the 3,000 years since, that part which king David established is known as such to this day. But Bethlehem was proud of its most famous son, and the locals laid claim to the title for themselves (in the same way that Sunderland lays claim to Alice in Wonderland, though elsewhere Alice is universally associated with Oxford). Given that Joseph’s genealogy ties him not only to Bethlehem but to David himself, it becomes almost inconceivable that they would not be welcomed into a home.
Why, then, the inn? Quite simply, this is an inconsistent and unjustified mistranslation. Luke knows the word for a commercial inn – it appears, along with a beast of burden and an innkeeper, in the parable of the surprising neighbour (or, good Samaritan, Luke 10) – but here in the birth narrative uses the word for the guest room of a home, the same word he later uses for the (larger, urban) guest room in which the Last Supper is held (Luke 22).
The typical peasant house had two rooms: a larger multipurpose room in which the family lived, and slept; and a smaller guest room. Jesus (like both of my sons, but not my daughter) was born in the family room, because there was no room in the guest room for Mary to give birth, supported by the women of the house and the women who functioned as midwives within the community. In all probability, Joseph waited in the smaller room, with any other men.
Why, then, is Jesus laid in a manger? In that context, every home kept a few animals, and the animals were brought into the house at night, both for protection against theft and in order that their body heat help keep the people warm at night (no central heating; hot days, cold nights). The animals were untied and led out from the house in the morning – every morning (including the Sabbath, as Jesus himself will point out when criticised for healing – untying – a woman on the Sabbath, Luke 13). The animals were kept at one end of the house, with the living room perhaps raised up a few feet; and mangers were bowl-shaped depressions in that end of the stone floor, at grazing height for the animals. As such a manger would provide a contained space, ideal for making a new-born baby feel secure. This is also why the shepherds, sent by the angels, praised God for all they had seen, as opposed to concluding that they had been sent to rescue this family from woeful abandonment.*
And that is why it matters, how we tell the story. Because the stories we tell shape us. We have told it as a story of obstruction and rejection. We confront people – however politely – with the expectation that they too will reject Jesus. But that is not good news. It is the very opposite of the good news that Luke presents us with. The good news is that in this carefully-planned event God is to be found dwelling in the midst of his people, having fulfilled his promise made long ago to David.
This is not a story of rejection, which allows us to take pride in being rejected, or make points about the marginalised, however convenient it might be if it were. This is a story of God being received with joy, of good news for all people, of Jesus at the very heart of everyday life with all its struggles and benefits and normality.
This is a story worth rediscovering, and shouting from the rooftops.
*If you are interested in more detail to this overview, see Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.