With the Christmas season upon us, it’s time to break out all our decorations. The tree. The stockings. The garland. And, yes, of course, the nativity scene. I love my nativity scene. I got it in Bethlehem when I visited Israel a couple years ago. And I don’t only pull it out during Christmas. The scene depicting Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a stable stays on my mantle all year long.
But what if our nativity scene isn’t exactly accurate to how Jesus’ birth actually happened?
It’s no secret that we Christians treasure artistic imagery of Jesus that isn’t always historically accurate. After all, it’s not likely that Jesus had a Western European complexion and long, flowing hair. (My apologies if I just shattered your world right now.)
But why pick on the classic nativity scene? We all love it! It’s an important part of our Christmas traditions.
I think if we don’t pause to reflect on our traditional conception and imagery of the nativity event, then we may miss something really important about the message of the story as told in Luke’s gospel.
Don’t Freak Out
Don’t worry. I’m not here to tell you that you need to throw out all the nativity decorations you’ve collected over the years. You’re not a heretic for loving and cherishing them.
With that being said, I don’t think Jesus was born in a stable. Or a cave for that matter.
I’ve been to Bethlehem and touched the rock that Jesus was supposedly laid on when he was born. But I wouldn’t stake my life on the fact that he was born there, in that precise spot. And it doesn’t actually matter that much.
While the precise location of Jesus’ birth is inconsequential (even though it’s very interesting), the conditions of Jesus’ birth are much more important.
When Luke describes the details of Jesus’ birth, he’s sending us an important message. Unfortunately, we don’t always pick up what he’s throwing down.
An Unfortunate Translation of kataluma (inn)
The whole issue boils down to what I believe to be an unfortunate translation of one word in the biblical nativity story. This one word has shaped our conception of Jesus’ birth. Entire sermons—in fact, entire movies—have been built around the translation of this one word from the original Greek in Luke’s narrative.
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. (Luke 2:7)
Notice that there is no mention of a stable or cave. We infer it from the fact that there was no vacancy in the inn, which we conceive to be the first century equivalent of a Motel 6. Or the Hilton, if you’re bougie.
It’s on this conception that we construct an entire narrative. Mary and Joseph run around the entire city, looking for lodging. They’re out in the cold. Mary’s water has just broken. There’s no room anywhere, so they hunker down in a nearby stable. Joseph single-handedly delivers the baby, and they spend the night among the farm animals.
But that’s probably not the best way to understand that word. Or the story.
Kataluma, while it can be used to refer to a hotel-type lodging, it can also just refer to the upper room of a house. Most homes had a main floor, with an upper guest room on the second story. In those same homes, there would be a lower level where the animals would be brought in at night for safe keeping. And yes, there were mangers there.
In addition to that, it would be pretty offensive for Mary and Joseph to go looking for a hotel to stay in. Why? Because they were in the city of their family origin. Which means there was someone in the neighborhood who was related to them.
In an eastern culture, it would be offensive to be in town and not stay with your family. Even if it were family that you hadn’t seen in years, or had never even met at all. It would also be dishonorable to your family for them to refuse to host you.
So instead of giving birth in a cold lonely stable, Mary and Joseph were most likely with their family. But since literally everyone and their mother was in town for the census, this poor family member’s home was packed to the rafters. So the men were probably sent outside while the women stayed in the home to help Mary deliver the baby.
And when the baby came, he was laid in a manger on the main level of the home, since there was no more space for anyone to lay down in the upper room (the kataluma). Thus Jesus came into the world. Surrounded by family. Ordinary in every way.
Jesus’ Birth Was Not Sensational — And That’s The Point!
It’d be like if I told you that, last night, in a working class neighborhood, a baby was born to a young couple. The couple isn’t famous. The labor gave way to a normal, healthy birth. There was nothing newsworthy about it—the baby wasn’t born in the car on the way to the hospital or anything like that.
Unless you had a blood relation to that baby, you might be wondering why I told you. I mean, you’re happy for the couple. You just don’t know them. You’ve never read about them in Us Weekly, and their story wasn’t featured on the news.
It was ordinary. Just like the thousands of other births that happened in similar communities that same night.
And that’s the point.
The message is this: Jesus didn’t just come for the rich and famous. He didn’t come only for the prestigious and the noble. He came for the nobodies. He came for the people that others would never give a second thought to. The ordinary. The unimpressive and unremarkable.
And Jesus’ mission was reflected even in the manner of his birth. The infinite Creator of the universe was born under the most unspectacular circumstances.
If you didn’t already know the significance of what was happening, you’d never know. And yet God was doing something so spectacular that we can hardly even grasp the full weight of its significance 2,000 years later.
God is writing eternity into the ordinary.
And so that means that maybe, just maybe, through Jesus, God can write an eternally spectacular story in the midst of your ordinary, bland, mundane, nobody life.
Maybe the abundant life Jesus offers isn’t just for the rich, the talented, the well-adjusted, the presentable, the lovely people of the world. Maybe, just maybe, it’s for you too.
That’s powerful. And that’s what Christmas is all about.
Yes, You Can Keep Your Nativity Scene.
Nativity scenes are great. I love mine. And, yes, it depicts Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a stable. But I’m not getting rid of it.
The tradition of this nativity image is a great comfort to many of us. It calls our hearts to remember the impact of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us. And that’s a good thing.
Let’s lean into it even just a little more by remembering that Jesus, the King of Glory, came to us in the most inglorious and unspectacular fashion possible.
This Christmas, may your heart be filled with the wonder that Jesus came for you, in the form of someone just like you.