Christmas is a wonderful time of year! Its array of bright lights, cozy fires, and enchanting decorations charm us all over again each and every year. Its atmosphere of peacefulness and coziness makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside. But unfortunately, our Western culture has taken that same peaceful, cozy atmosphere and applied it to the Christmas manger story. I say “unfortunately”, because the Christmas story was anything but peaceful and cozy. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus born in a manger was not a pleasant experience. Not only was the environment filthy, but the circumstance was humiliating and shameful.
Now before you call me a Scrooge or say my heart is three sizes too small, hear me out. I like Christmas! I enjoy the fun activities! I admire all the colorful decorations! And I will be the first to admit that the manger story is intended to bring peace and joy to the hearts of humanity (Luke 2:10, 14, 18, 20). But just because the first advent of the Messiah meant hope for the nations does not mean his arrival was peaceful or comfortable. Quite the contrary. His grim entrance into this world played a crucial role into why the world has hope in the first place. Jesus was born into a moment of suffering in order to show that He will one day end it. That’s the real message of the manger story. Let me walk through three stages of this story that point to its disparaging nature.
1. THE JOURNEY TO BETHLEHEM
When we think about Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem, I am sure a few pictures come to mind. One might be a dark, starry night. Another might be Mary sitting on a donkey. Both of these could be true, but the Gospel of Luke, which records the journey, does not mention either detail. In all likelihood, Mary traveled on some kind of animal, like a donkey or a camel, because she was pregnant. But it is doubtful that they traveled at night, because they would be susceptible to robbers along the way. Even traveling by day, though, in those days was a risk (Luke 10:30). It still would have been dangerous.
Whatever the case, what we do know is that the trip was quite far. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is no small hike. In fact, it would not even be considered a long hike by our standards. The journey was at least 90 miles on foot—assuming, of course, they broke with modern Jewish custom and traveled through the heart of Samaria. The Pharisees at that time refused to associate with Samaritans and would, therefore, walk around their region. If they honored the custom and walked around Samaria, the distance would have been much greater, up to 120 miles. Needless to say, it would have been exhausting.
But such a long trip was not uncommon for people in those days. Every year thousands of Jews would make the trip from Galilee (where Nazareth was located) to Jerusalem (not far from Bethlehem). Yet, we must consider the fact that Mary was 9-months pregnant. This adds a tricky factor into the equation. Now, a 90-mile journey becomes more than just exhausting. It would have been equally uncomfortable and slow. And there was always the added risk of Mary giving birth along the way.
But the trip was necessary, because Caesar Augustus ordered a worldwide census mandating every citizen to return to his hometown. Joseph’s hometown was Bethlehem and, since he was betrothed to Mary, she had to register with him there (Luke 2:1–5). This couple was caught in the middle of a political nightmare. We think high taxes or a government shutdown is a big deal. Imagine if you were forced to return by foot to your hometown hundreds of miles away just because the government wanted to flex its muscles to the rest of the world with a census! All this, 9-months pregnant? It would have been horribly inconvenient for Mary and Joseph.
The journey was dangerous, exhausting, uncomfortable, and inconvenient. There was nothing magical about this experience.
2. THE CONVERSATION AT THE “INN”
The innkeeper has been a staple character in so many Christmas story retellings, but the truth is there was no innkeeper, because there was no inn. The word translated “inn” by many English versions is actually “guest room” [Greek, κατάλυμα] (Luke 2:7). We know this is a guest room in someone’s house and not an inn, because the word always means “guest room” or “upper room” in other parts of Scripture (like the “upper room” where Jesus dined with His disciples; see Luke 22:11; cf. Mark 14:14). Moreover, Luke uses an entirely different word when he wants to talk about an inn [Greek, πανδοχεύς, for innkeeper] (Luke 10:35).
The difference is significant. Luke does not envision a neutral third-party denying Joseph and Mary access to a bedroom in his motel. He implies it was a relative of Joseph’s (or at least a good friend). And that would be consistent with the social environment of the culture. Jews were very hospitable, especially to family. So, it’s not unreasonable to assume Joseph reached out to family in his hometown for a place to stay.
But the text tells us they could not stay in the guest room, because “there was no place for them” (Luke 2:7). This could mean one of two things:
Option 1: There was no space for Joseph and Mary in the room. That is the traditional and natural interpretation. The census would have brought people from all over the map back to Bethlehem for registration, and it’s entirely possible that the guest room Joseph wanted to stay in was already filled by the time he and Mary arrived into town.
Option 2: There was no opportunity given to Joseph and Mary to get a room. This does not seem as likely at first glance, because “no place” sounds like a synonym for “no space”. However, the Greek word for “place” [τόπος] can also mean “chance” or “opportunity”. So which one is it? “Place” or “opportunity”? The first translation seems best based on the description of the verse. But the broader context and backdrop of Luke’s Gospel may suggest otherwise.
From the beginning of the book, Luke has portrayed Jesus as one subjected to Israel’s exile (Luke 1:48, 52–53, 68, 71, 74, 76, 78–79). Although Israel had returned from captivity several hundred years prior, the Major and Minor Prophets project that Israel will remain in a state of exile until the Messiah comes. They may be free to a degree, but they are not functioning to the level God promised they would, as the center of the world, as those who would lead the nations. This is the definition of exile and Jesus must be born into it in order to break it. A harsh rejection at the time of Jesus’ birth fits the exilic setting prophesied about him (Isaiah 7:14–15).
In addition, the fact that Joseph was still betrothed to Mary would not have sat well with Joseph’s relatives. Let’s not forget that Joseph was planning to call off the wedding, because he found out Mary was pregnant (Matthew 1:19). Joseph’s initial reaction to dismiss her was generous and kind toward Mary, because Old Testament law prescribed that she be stoned for the indiscretion that got her pregnant (Deuteronomy 22:23–24). This was the best Joseph could do for Mary. He could not marry her, because she was a virgin, who in his eyes just committed adultery. So he was left with one of two options: He could either have her stoned in front of the entire city or let her go quietly. He chose the latter, because he was merciful and compassionate. And if it was not for an angel explaining to him in a dream that the pregnancy was from the Holy Spirit, he would have gone through with it.
Joseph was a rare man of integrity in Israel. His family in Bethlehem were likely not as forgiving. No matter how much Joseph may have tried to explain the situation, it’s hard to imagine they would believe him. He would have been disowned for choosing to stay with Mary.
For these reasons, I think it is best to translate “no place” as “no opportunity”. Joseph and Mary were not wanted, because Joseph decided to go ahead with the marriage, despite learning that Mary was pregnant out of wedlock. This would not be as hard to swallow if they were turned down by a random innkeeper. But since the family was likely related to Joseph, the sting of ostracization is that much greater. There was nothing inviting about this situation.
3. THE BIRTH IN THE “STABLE”
Although Joseph’s relatives may have disowned him, their hospitality prevented them from banishing the couple to their doom. As I mentioned before, the Jewish culture was very hospitable and they knew turning Joseph and Mary away would have put them in real danger. But they were also fiercely loyal to the Law. For this reason, I believe the family disowned them in spirit, but not in presence. They still brought them into their home, but they did not allow them to use the guest room. Instead, they offered them the “stable” where the animals stayed. They did this for two reasons:
First, it was the only other open and available space in their house. Contrary to Western conception, the stable was not a wooden barn. It was the lowest room inside the house allowing the body heat of the animals to rise and warm the rest of the home. Joseph and Mary, in all likelihood, stayed in the house with this family, but they stayed in a lower room full of animals, not a guest room.
Second, it was a way to shame Joseph and Mary. Forcing them to stay with the animals was a way to both preserve their lives and humiliate them. It sent a message that said, “We’re not so heartless that we would let you die, but we don’t consider you even human anymore. You’re just one of the animals” (And you thought your in-laws were harsh!). Our culture loves animals, so it’s difficult for us to see this as a shameful place to stay. But in those days, no one would willfully stay with animals. It was an unthinkable abomination (Luke 15:15–16).
Joseph and Mary reached a whole new low. They were outcasts in the eyes of the town in public and their families in private. And now, they were treated like the animals they had to spend their days with. To make matters worse, this is the place where Mary had to give birth. Keep in mind, the conditions are beyond unsanitary and there was likely no help from the family upstairs. Joseph, a man whom Mary probably did not know well, was her only advocate and nurse. What’s more, there was no place to lay the baby once He was born. They had to resort to a manger, which was one of the animal’s feeding troughs. It was not cute and wooden like most manger sets depict. It was hard and uncomfortable, because the manger was made of stone, as most were back in those days.
Joseph and Mary hit rock bottom, and this is why I say in the video that this was Mary’s darkest hour, the worst moment of her life. She was treated as an outcast for something wrong she did not do. On top of that, she had to give birth to Jesus in the filthiest place you can imagine with little to no help. And if that still doesn’t put things in perspective, bear in mind Mary is probably only 13-16 years old at this time. There was nothing adorable about this scene.
WHY WAS JESUS BORN IN A MANGER?
It’s not the story we’re used to hearing, and maybe it rubs your fur the wrong way. But this is the real setting behind Jesus and the manger. It was miserable and disgraceful. It was disgusting and forgettable. But God wanted it that way. He engineered all the events of that era to make Jesus’ birth an awful experience. It wasn’t because He was heartless or maniacal. It was because He was proving a point. As Israel was in exile, so was its Messiah. As Israel suffered the pains of life, so did its Messiah. In order to show full power over a daunting situation, you first have to be fully immersed in it. And God did just that. He submerged His own Son into the depths of exile so that one day at the cross He would spell its doom.
As hard as Mary had it, she knew all this. And we know she knew all this, because Luke 2:19 tells us as much, “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Most of us would have been begging to forget this day. But not Mary. She understood what was going on. She knew that the One she was giving birth to was going to end all the shame she was enduring and the pain she was suffering. The Messiah in her womb kept her going and became the reason she went out of her way to remember every detail about that awful day. As bad as the Christmas manger looked, God turned it into a sign of peace and hope, much like the cross Jesus would die on, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths 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, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’” (Luke 2:12–14).