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. (Luke 2: 6-7)
After ten days of travel, Joseph and Mary finally arrived in Bethlehem. But upon arriving, the young couple found the local inn overcrowded, so Mary was forced to give birth in a barn. Right? Maybe, but maybe not.
The word translated in most English versions as “inn” is the Greek word kataluma. This word can also be, and perhaps should be, translated as “guest room.” The word appears in two other places in the New Testament, in Mark and Luke, when Jesus tells his disciples on Thursday of Holy Week to find the owner of a particular house and ask, “Where is the guest room (kataluma) where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” The word referred to an extra room in the house.
I’ve suggested that Joseph was from Bethlehem. Why would he need an inn if his family lived there? He would not. Many scholars also suggest it is unlikely that there was an inn in Bethlehem. A better translation of Luke 2:7 might be that she laid him in a manger because “there was no place for them in the guest room.”
Joseph’s entire family would have been required to return to Bethlehem for the census. Most would have arrived before Mary and Joseph, so the guest room likely would already have had two or three families staying in it. But there also would have ben a stable or barn in the house-tradition says it was a cave like the one at Mary’s home in Nazareth. It makes sense to think that Mary and Joseph would have been afforded greater privacy, and would have avoided making the rest of the house ceremonially unclean, by staying in that stable or barn. Therefore Mary laid her son in a manger, because “there was no place for them in the guest room.”
Luke doesn’t explain all this to us. That is not his point. What he wants us to notice is that Mary gave birth in a makeshift shelter, and Jesus’ first bed was a feeding trough. The King of kings was born to a young couple whose income placed them on the lowest rung of society, and he was born homeless.
Christianity speaks of Jesus’ birth as the “Incarnation”; that is, in Jesus, God came and lived among us. Jesus’ birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection all show us God’s heart and character. In Jesus’ birthplace, we see that the God of the universe identifies with the lowly. This leads me to love him even more. This is the glory of God that we see in Jesus Christ-humility, compassion, mercy, tenderness, and lowliness.
Today, as many as 3.5 million Americans are homeless at some point during the year. Of these, thirty-nine percent are under the age of eighteen. A surprising number of homeless women are pregnant. Part of God’s message in Christmas is intended for those who are homeless or nearly so. In Christmas, God says to them, “When I came to walk on earth, I was born in a stable, to two teenage parents who had nowhere else to stay.”
As you prepare for Christmas you’ve likely been shopping, trying to buy gifts for people who already have all they need. What if this year you gave gifts in honor of your friends and family to help people who really are in need? My friend, Pastor Mike Slaughter, likes to remind his congregation, “Christmas is not your birthday!” He challenges everyone in his congregation to give to the poor each Christmas an amount equal to what they will spend on their family. My wife LaVon and I began doing this several years ago. Our decision acts as a governor on what we spend for our family, keeps us focused on what Christmas is really about, and fills us with the joy of knowing we are helping others.
I challenge you to consider doing this in your own life or with your family. Your local church likely has suggestions for you of projects to serve those in need this Christmas.
Lord, I am humbled that you came to us as a child born in a stable and laid to sleep in a manger. Help me to see those in need as you see them, and this Christmas to serve as your hands and voice to bless them in your name. Amen.