CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Away in a Manger? Reflections on the Nativity
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
- Luke 2:1-20
What does it mean for Christ to have come among us, to have lived and died as one of us? The assertion is no less scandalous or confounding to our rational human sensibilities today than it was 2,020 years ago. But after nearly two millennia of accumulated cultural traditions surrounding Jesus’ birth, the sentiment has lost a bit of its edge. For many Christians, the idea that “God became flesh” seems rather commonplace, even sentimental. Like Linus, many of us can recite Luke’s birth narrative by heart. When we hear the story, our minds are filled with familiar images from childhood – nativity scenes in which the Christ child is laid in a manger, surrounded by donkeys and cattle, because there was no room for them in the inn.
But what if I told you that there were no inn? And what if there were no indifferent innkeeper turning away the holy family in their time of need? What if there were no lonely stable or desolate cave in the wilderness where Mary and Joseph were forced to take refuge? What if the gospel tradition does not, in fact, tell us that Jesus was born alone in a barn after having been rejected by the villagers of Bethlehem, but, rather, that he was born within the normal context of a humble family home, just like any other Jewish peasant?
Theologians and scholars throughout history have suggested this very thing, but, for some reason, most of us still haven’t gotten the memo. Like many misunderstandings in popular theology, our traditional Western interpretation of the nativity seems to have developed gradually over time. The confusion centers largely around the Greek word kataluma (kατάλυμα), which is typically translated in Luke 2:7 as “inn,” but which is actually a generic term for a “place to stay” that is much more commonly used in reference to the upper guest room of a house. Luke and Mark both use kataluma, for example, to refer to the “upper room” where Jesus and his disciples shared in the Last Supper. Alternatively, Luke uses an entirely different Greek word – pandocheion – to indicate a public lodging house in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34).
Moreover, as Anglican priest Ian Paul and others have pointed out, it would be unthinkable within the cultural context of ancient Palestine for a Jewish man returning to his ancestral home not to be welcomed and received by extended family. While it is possible to infer from the text that the upper guest room was already occupied, there is no indication that the family was ever rejected or turned away. New Testament scholar Stephen Carlson argues from the Greek that the phrase "because there was no room for them in the inn" is probably best translated "because there was no space for them in the guest accommodations," noting that “the problem facing Joseph and Mary in the story was not that they were denied a particular or well-known place to stay when they first arrived, but that their place to stay was not such that it could accommodate the birth and neonatal care of the baby Jesus.”
In other words, when it came time for Mary to give birth, the couple most likely had to move into the lower quarters of the house to make room for the birthing process. This lower living area is also where animals were commonly kept at night in most Palestinian homes (rather than in a separate barn or stable). The term “manger” simply refers to a feeding trough, and as Ian Paul writes, “the most natural place to lay the baby is in the hay-filled depressions at the lower end of the house where the animals are fed.”
While some may find this information shocking, it is not a new revelation by any means. Spanish philologist Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas made a similar set of observations to his students at the University of Salamanca in 1584, noting that many of the medieval church paintings depicting the nativity scene in a barn or stable were inaccurate. Several students reported him to the Inquisition, and he was reprimanded for his remarks in spite of the lengthy biblical exegesis he offered in his defense.
Over the past two or three years, I have seen several articles circulating on social media that disseminate this same information, but it always seems to fall on deaf ears. Are we just so attached to our beloved crèches? Or perhaps there is something still entirely too scandalous about Christ truly coming to live among us– yes, even in the mundane chaos of a dirty living room filled with animals and surrounded by extended family.
Perhaps this feels a little too close to home.
We want to think of Jesus as being very different from us. We want a birth narrative that tells us Jesus was special and set apart – human, but not really one of us. By imagining Jesus, Mary and Joseph as marginalized figures, cast off in a remote location by themselves, it becomes all too easy for us to maintain an illusion of distance between ourselves and God. Our traditional Western nativity scenes present us with a God we can worship from afar. But the Gospel offers us something far more revelatory and radical than that: a God whom we can meet and know and follow.
And if there was ever a year we needed this bit of good news, friends, it is most assuredly this one! In the midst of the upheaval that has characterized all of our home lives during this pandemic year, take heart and remember that it was precisely in the midst of social upheaval and domestic chaos Christ came into the world, poor and fully human, forever joining heaven and earth, and eradicating once and for all that veil of separation between the Creator and the created.
Maranatha! Come, our Lord. And may we each find humble ways to make room for Christ’s birth in our hearts and in our homes this Christmas.
Kristen Leigh Mitchell is a member of Good Shepherd, Asheboro.
 Stephen Carlson, “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Kατάλυμα in Luke 2:7,” New Testament Studies 56, 2010: 326-342.
 Ian Paul, “Jesus Wasn’t Born In A Stable – and That Makes All the Difference,” Psephizo: Scholarship. Serving. Ministry.,
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