What the Traditional Nativity often Gets Wrong

nativityWe sing about the babe born in the manger, and we decorate with beautiful nativity scenes commemorating the Christ child’s birth.

If you go to Bethlehem, you could visit the “Church of the Nativity,” a basilica erected by Constantine on top of the place traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Christ.

And, there’s certainly nothing wrong with reverent displays.

But as we celebrate tradition and the words of the Christ tale, we mustn’t forget that the lenses of our cultural glasses have the tendency to color the story. Or to put it another way, we often take our modern day notions and ideas and read them back into the text. Sometimes, this causes us to miss out on crucial parts of the story.

For instance, take a look at Luke 2:7, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (ESV).

We hear the word “manger” and it calls to mind images of grandpop’s red barn. Knowing there aren’t red barns in the Christmas story, we turn the picture into a rundown, wooden stable. Or perhaps, if we are familiar with early church tradition, a cave filled with animals.

When we hear the word “inn,” our minds conjure up scenarios where a busy inn keeper turns Mary and Joseph away saying “No room.”

But are either of these pictures really accurate? I don’t really think so.

First, it’s important to our story to realize that the word “inn” does not likely refer to anything resembling our modern understanding of motels.

Luke 22:11 gives another example of the same Greek word: “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”

The word “guest room” would also be a better translation for 2:7, so thus “There was no room in the guest room.” [The newest version of the NIV does in fact translate it this way, though most modern English versions of the Bible stick with the traditional translation of “inn.”]

It’s also important to realize that animals and mangers were typically kept on the first floor of the home (or occasionally in a cave attached to the home), and the living quarters and guest housing were on the second floor. Some claim that home owners lived on the first floor with their animals and left the whole second floor for guests.

But just how does this affect the Christmas story?

When we look at the Christmas story, it seems people (probably relatives) welcomed Mary and Joseph to stay with them. They didn’t turn them away because of overflowing crowds or the shame of Mary’s pregnancy.

Additionally, Luke 2:6 states, “And while they were there,” implying that Joseph and Mary had already been there for awhile, most likely staying with relatives (which would be in line with Mary’s earlier visit to her welcoming cousin Elizabeth in the same region earlier in the book).

Though it makes for good drama in movies, it’s unlikely that Mary and Joseph showed up in Bethlehem on the same day Marry went into labor, causing Joseph to rush around frantically looking for a birthing area. Nor was it likely that Joseph delivered the baby Jesus. Culturally, women served the function of midwives and men stayed out of the way.

Rather than viewing the story of Jesus’ birth as an isolating event where they were cast off and marginalized, we may do better to recognize the communal aspect. Relatives went out of their way to invite them into their home, perhaps even sacrificing their own bedding on the first floor, to provide and care for them for an undetermined period of time.

Can you imagine how busy Bethlehem must have been? Picture your relatives coming to visit for several weeks in your cramped living space. Where will they sleep? You give up your own bed. What will you feed them? You can barely provide enough to feed your own children.

That first Christmas was about sacrifice—the Prince of Heaven who poured himself into human flesh and those who cared for the mother who bore the babe.