The Christmas Story’s Surprising Call for Community

Shortly after my life flipped around, I bought a picture of a very Western-looking Jesus from a garage sale and took it home to hang on my wall.

It was kind of nice. When I passed by I’d be like, “Oh, hi, Jesus. Fancy you hanging around.”

But when I moved, I left the picture behind.

Why? Between the time I’d purchased it and the time I moved, I learned the Jesus I would meet someday looked nothing like the Jesus hanging on my wall. Sandy blonde, blue-eyed Jesus didn’t exist. So I left Western Jesus behind.

A few years ago, I was forced to do the same thing with the Christmas Story.

The Embellished Manger Scene

It turns out the Christmas Story we celebrate is rooted more in a third-century novel than it is biblical culture and history. Around 200 A.D., an anonymous author wrote a book titled, The Protevangelium of James. James had nothing to do with the book, but somehow, some of the ideas it presented have leaked into our modern Christmas story.

For example:

The lush farmland between Jerusalem and Bethlehem became barren dessert.

The six months of pregnancy available (Luke 1:56-2.5) for Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem and prepare becomes a last-minute journey. In fact, the anonymous author has Mary say to Joseph, “Take me down from the ass, for the child within me presses me to come forth.”

In a panic, Joseph responds by rushing Mary to a cave while he rushes off to Bethlehem to find a midwife.

It’s the gospel fancified. But I can see elements of that novel that made it into my own Christmas skin—skin that needed to be shed so I could see something new.

In contrast, Kenneth Bailey, an ordained minister with degrees in Arabic, literature, systematic theology and a Th.D. in New Testament—who has lived for 40 years in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus while teaching and holds the title of research professor of Middle Eastern New Testament studies in Jerusalem—offers these points to consider (taken nearly verbatim from his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes):

Joseph was a descendant of royal blood through the line of David. This made him part of a celebrity family in Bethlehem, a town known by locals as the City of David.

In every culture, a woman preparing for birth is given extra special attention. Bailey writes, “Simple rural communities all over the world always assist one of their own women in childbirth regardless of the circumstances. Are we to imagine that Bethlehem was the exception? Surely the community would have sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed.”

And so the dissection continues, as we are encouraged to evaluate Luke’s semantics with the word “inn.” Throughout his gospel, Luke uses two different words for “inn”—katalyma and pandocheion.

One is a guest room while the other is a commercial inn. For example, when writing the story of the Good Samaritan, Luke uses the word pandocheion—indicating a commercial inn. When writing the account of disciples acquiring the Upper Room—a guest room that was part of someone’s home—Luke uses the word katalyma.

Guess which word is used by Luke when he writes there is no room for Mary? Yes, katalyma. In fact, the new NIV has changed the translation to read, “because there was no guest room available for them.”

So when we consider the story of Jesus’ birth, we must erase the idea of an ancient commercial inn that was filled to the max and consider instead that the guest room attached to a house that was full. So where would a young couple of royal blood go in the City of David?

More than likely, in the main family room. But wait a minute. What about the mangers? Walter Liefled writes in his commentary on Luke, “Even today in many places around the world, farm animals and their fodder are often kept in the same building as the family quarters.”

Below is a diagram that shows a traditional house of this era. It’s divided into three segments. The back portion was the katalyma—the guest room that was full. The middle portion is the family room where the family slept together, taking advantage of the heat provided by the animals, who were boarded in a slightly depressed front portion of the home used as a stable. The mangers were elevated and placed on that edge of the family room so that the animals could simply walk over and eat.

This allows us to consider that Mary might have given birth in a family room and used the mangers at her side as the crib.

The Lost Art of Hospitality

Why is this so important to me?

For years, I have been taught that Mary and Joseph were victims of rudeness. I have imagined them in a dark and cold place, pushing the Savior of the world into being without anyone around. And if I were honest, I wondered: Where was God in this? Was Mary so loathed that she didn’t deserve the customary attendance during birth? Why didn’t God see to the needs of Mary while birthing His Son?

I have even read the account of Luke—while depositing all my preconceived ideas of the Christmas Story—and wondered how such nasty innkeepers could turn away a pregnant woman. I would never do that. I would always open my door to her.

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Or would I?

BBC had an article recently titled, “Help! The Family is Coming!” It discussed the best ways to keep from having to pick your own family and friends up from the airport, how to kindly suggest they stay at a hotel rather than your home, and how to even politely put boundaries on their visit, encouraging them to come for just a few days rather than a week. It also suggested that a person not go in debt hosting company, and while I think that is good advice, I had to ask, “We go into debt for cars and cell phones. Why not scrap those and choose people?”

I think we can safely say the art of hospitality is lost on us.

Here is my point:

In many cultures, a child being born is a reason to gather. It is a celebration. It is earthy and messy and beautiful. It is a chance for women to empower another woman as she pushes life into the world.

And it’s not done alone.

And so as we consider Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth—Luke who esteemed women and their roles in Jesus’ life and ministry—and realize that the guest room was full, but a family most likely invited Mary into their humble, shared quarters to deliver, we start to recognize the Savior Jesus claimed to be.

We see Him as the extraordinary Messiah who preferred to be with the common people in common quarters. We see a Teacher whose entire earthly ministry was a thread weaving through homes as people invited him inside. We see a King who preferred humility and simplicity over pomp and circumstance. We see a man who claimed nothing as His own so that, as God, He could claim all who are His.

And if we miss the cultural implications that suggest an open invitation by a common family in this first Christmas, we miss the celebration.

Jesus chose to enter the world right in the middle of family—in the midst of their personal, intimate quarters. And it is highly likely that women gathered around Mary and encouraged her to labor for her Son who would later labor for them—for us. In this culturally relevant Christmas story, we start to realize that this life—this living and breathing Christ—is best done together. In homes. With hospitality. Inviting people into the intimate spaces of our lives so that we can labor our own salvation together through the strength of His Spirit by the grace of His Son.

This article was originally published on uprootedandundone.

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