Joseph… went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Yes, you read that right – ‘no guest room’. That’s how the revised New International Version translates Luke 2:7. It comes as a surprise to some people to discover that there is no mention of a stable or an inn, let alone an innkeeper, in the Christmas story.
Given that Joseph was returning to his home town, it’s highly unlikely he would not be able to find shelter there. Even allowing for the shame of a child conceived out of wedlock, hospitality codes meant that strangers could expect some welcome, let alone a member of the family expecting the birth of a baby. Moreover, that Jesus was born ‘while they were there’ suggests plenty of time to arrange suitable housing.
Luke uses the regular word for ‘inn’ when relating Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (10:34). The word used here, however, is the same one he uses for the ‘upper room’ of a house where the last supper took place (22:11). It refers to a lodging or guest room, usually part of a private house.
This, and the mention of the manger, fits what is known of peasant houses from this period. They typically had one room where eating and sleeping took place, with a lower section for animals. Mangers were often cut into the floor of the living accommodation. In some homes, a ‘guest room’ could be built on the flat roof or at the end of the house. Luke tells us that this room is already occupied, so Mary places the newborn child in the most comfortable place in the house – the manger in the main family room. It’s lowly, but more domestic than destitute.
Somewhat ironically, the effect of the stable scenes on our Christmas cards might be to distance Jesus from us, perhaps allowing us to forget that he was born as ‘one of us’. As it happens, the most striking feature of Luke’s account is its decided ‘ordinariness’, with Jesus born in the normal surroundings of an everyday peasant home.
To be sure, he is the ‘Saviour… the Messiah, the Lord’ (Luke 2:11), and yet he takes his place with us in the mundaneness of the everyday world. And the salvation he brings comes in the context of real life, and to people just like us.