During my years as a pastor, Christmas always presented a challenge. The challenge was, how do you say anything fresh and new about Christmas, a story that is so well known and enshrined in our cultural and religious heritage?
When asked recently to speak at my church on Christmas, I faced that challenge by choosing to speak on what I called “Christmyths”; that is the things we traditionally believe about the Christmas story, that on closer examination are clearly not true.
By the end of my introduction, I had the people’s interest. I proceeded to outline the traditional understanding of Mary and Joseph arriving at Bethlehem, with Mary about to give birth. The story continues that they found no place open to them, so they took up residence in a stable where Jesus was born.
There are some big problems with this traditional rendering of the story. Firstly. Luke 2:4 tells us of their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. In verse six it says, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.” Clearly Mary and Joseph were already there when Mary began to give birth. Secondly this was Joseph’s hometown, and there is no way that his extended family would not have received him into one of their homes. In Middle Eastern culture it is a shame on a house not to offer hospitality to anyone, let alone one of your own family!
So, what then about verse seven, which says, “She wrapped Him in cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn”? The Greek word for inn, which Luke uses in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, is not the word that Luke uses in this story. Instead, he uses a word that best translates to guest room. Traditional Jewish homes in this time were separated into three rooms. The first room at the front was where the animals were brought into at night, because they were valuable and the family’s greatest asset. After this came the room where the family dwelt; between these two rooms were mangers where the family could feed the animals from their room. Last of all came the guest room. It is the word that Luke uses in his account.
It is likely that the guest room was filled with other family that would have been in town for the census, so Mary and Joseph stayed in the family house with their relatives, and Jesus (when born) was laid in the manger because that would have been the warmest place in the house, being nearest to the animals. The woman of the family, (not Joseph thankfully) would have served Mary in giving birth to the baby Jesus.
So why is this important? I think the answer to this is that if Jesus is going to come into the world, it will be first into our homes and our families, just as He was born into a normal middle Eastern family setting two thousand years ago. When we welcome His family, into our family, it is there Christ is born, and it is here we can welcome other people to celebrate this miracle, even the group of unwashed and outcast shepherds that turn up at the door!
Let us all welcome Christ into our homes this Christmas, and celebrate His birth, replicating what happened in a home in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.
Colin Shilston is a PK speaker and the author of Understanding God’s Call: The journey towards knowing your true self.