We all know what a nativity scene is supposed to look like — Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in a stable surrounded by sheep and cows, oxen and camels, shepherds and three wise men, and floating above it all, an angel.
Christmas pageants tell the story that way every year. Joseph and a very pregnant Mary travel the 145 km from Nazareth to Bethlehem and arrive in a panic because Mary is due any minute. Joseph breathlessly knocks on doors, but all he can see are bright red “No Vacancy” signs. Finally, a friendly innkeeper finds some space for them in the barn out back. And there the miracle happens. As Luke writes the climax of the story, “Mary brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
It’s a touching, heart–warming story. But you won’t find it in the Bible. No drafty barn or friendly innkeeper, no sense of urgency or panic about needing to find a place because Mary’s due any moment now.
That story comes from a Christian novel written some 200 years after the fact, called The Protoevangelium of James. Catchy title, huh? It’s filled with all kinds of imaginative details, and it has captured our imaginations ever since.
But Jesus wasn’t born in a drafty barn. He was born in a peasant home, probably belonging to Joseph’s extended family.
Here is where cultural differences become important. In 1st century Palestine, a basic peasant house had two rooms. The main room is the family room, where the entire family cooked, ate, slept, and lived.
One end of the family room, near the door, was a few feet lower. Every night, the family would herd their animals—a cow, or goat, or some sheep—into that lower section. The animals would sleep there, safe from predators. In the cold season they would provide a little extra warmth. In the morning, the animals would be taken out, and the lower section cleaned.
Near the animals’ section, a shallow trough would be dug into the end of the floor in the family room, so the animals could feed at night. That’s the manger.
And the inn which had no room? It’s not a Motel 8 or a Holiday Express. Luke uses the Greek word kataluma; it’s the room in a peasant house which is used by guests or members of the extended family. The guest room was attached either at the end of the house, or a chamber up on the roof, the “upper room”. Kataluma only occurs once more — at the end of the story where it refers to the “upper room” where Jesus eats the Last Supper with his disciples.
The kataluma was full because of that imperial edict from Rome which ordered a census. Like Joseph and Mary, other members of Joseph’s extended family had traveled to Bethlehem to be registered. They were all staying with family. This kind of hospitality was what families do, especially in the Middle East.
“And while they were there,” Mary’s time came. She gives birth in the family room. The women would have chased the men out and called in the village midwife. She wraps the baby in blankets and lays him in the manger, that small depression at the end of the family room where the feed for the animals would have been placed.
You may be asking “So what? Does it really make any difference?”
Well, yes it does. How you tell a story matters because stories shape us. Try telling your children their favourite story and changing it up!
In this story, Joseph doesn’t look like an inept or inadequate husband who can’t provide for Mary’s needs. Joseph knew he’d be welcomed into the home of his extended family.
And this child is born in the normal surroundings of a peasant home. It’s not something out of the ordinary. This Jesus comes to us in our ordinary lives in ordinary ways. God is with us in our ordinary lives. God lives among us, sharing the joy and pain of our lives. The light shines in our darkness to enlighten us and lead us home.
In this story, the peasant folk in Bethlehem offered this child their best, even though the guest room was full. It’s the story of people sharing their hospitality with all who are in need, at a time when empire was flexing its muscles with that census.
And the first ones to hear and see are the shepherds, who were among the lowest members of society. They were at the bottom of the heap. The rabbis taught that they were unclean. They stank. They did what no one else wanted to do.
Even though society rejected them, they were the very first ones to hear the message. This is good news for the lowest of the low. The one who came as Saviour … was one of them. This baby would show in his life that God loves all people, that God has a soft spot for shepherds and peasants, for the hungry and homeless, for the victims and the poor and the despised. All are precious in God’s sight. God is one of them!
No wonder the shepherds returned home “praising God for all they had heard and seen”.
This is good news for the poor, and for all. Born in a peasant home, the poor did their best for him, and it was enough. Shepherds are welcome. The unclean are judged to be clean. Outcasts become honoured guests.
And that gets much closer to what Christmas is all about. God comes crashing into our world. Not for the rich and powerful. Rather, God comes to be with the poor, the ones so easily overlooked, the ones we avoid in the streets.
Yeah, it makes a difference how we tell the story.
Not “away in a manger”. Rather, in a home surrounded by extended family.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook