I am here to tamper with a masterpiece, or better said, to share with you a rather different reading of Luke 2:1-7, one solidly grounded in the facts, but nowhere represented in Christmas carols and pageants. I must tell you that I have heard endless sermons on how there was "no room in the inn" and how it was typical of a cold, fallen world to cast the holy family and Jesus out into the cold, and so on, often preached with great fervor but producing no ferment at all.
We've heard it countless times before. We've all been inoculated with a slight case of Christmas, preventing us from getting the real thing, or in this case, from reading these texts in a more historical way. The problem with the Christmas-pageant version is, this is not at all likely to be what Luke intends to tell us in this much beloved and belabored Christmas tale.
When it came time for Mary to deliver the baby, the Greek of Luke's text says, "she wrapped him in cloth and laid him in a corn crib, as there was no room in the guest room." Yes, you heard me right. Luke does not say there was no room in the inn. Luke has a different Greek word for inn (pandeion), which he trots out in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The word he uses here (kataluma) is the very word he uses to describe the room in which Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples the guest room of a house.
Archeology shows that houses in Bethlehem and its vicinity often had caves as the back of the house where they kept their prized ox or beast of burden, lest it be stolen. The guest room was in the front of the house, the animal shelter in the back, and Joseph and Mary had come too late to get the guest room, so the relatives did the best they could by putting them in the back of the house.
Or perhaps, seeing that Mary was close to labor, the family put the delivering mom in the already-unclean spot in the house. Many people overlook the ritual uncleanness of childbearing in this story, although Luke mentions it in 2:22, "when the time of their purification was up "
Bethlehem was a one-stoplight town, and we don't have a shred of archaeological evidence that there ever was a wayfarer's inn in that little village in Jesus' day. All this silliness about 'no room at the Holiday Inn' for the holy family or the world giving Jesus the cold shoulder is not at all what Luke is talking about. It's a story about no inn in the room! It's a story about a family making do when more relatives than expected suddenly show up on the doorstep. It's a story most of us can relate to in one way or another. Jesus was born in his relative's home, in the place where they kept the most precious of their animals. One can well imagine the smell.
The question for us this day is: Do we still have the capacity to be surprised, enthralled, by this remarkable Christmas story? Do we still have the capacity to see all things new, once more? Can we make him room in our homes, even if the calendar is full, and the head count high on the home front? As Angelus Silesius, a 17th-century poet, wrote, "Though Christ a thousand times/ In Bethlehem be born,/ If he's not born in thee/ Thy soul is still forlorn." Let me tell you that if you let that Guest into your inner sanctum, even if you put him in the very back, he will surely take over and become the center of attention in due course.
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This article was adapted from a sermon originally posted on Witherington's blog.
Other articles about the history of Christmas are in our special section.