By Father Casey
The story of the birth of Jesus has been portrayed so many times, in art and nativities and church pageants, that most of us feel a deep familiarity with it. The problem is that the scene most of us imagine is entirely wrong. You know the scene I’m talking about: Mary labors to deliver the child in a lonely barn outside of Bethlehem, with only Joseph and a few livestock present, because they had been turned away by all the inns in town. If that’s more or less the scene that comes to mind, I hope you’ll reconsider it.
The problems with our Christmas fantasy are several. First of all, remember that Joseph’s family was originally from Bethlehem, so it is hard to imagine there being no one who could take them in. Second, a pregnant woman clearly nearing the time of labor would have received considerable sympathy, even if she was a stranger. And third, Mary’s relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah – who she visited just a few months earlier – lived only a few miles away in a neighboring village and would presumably have welcomed them in. So, the image of the lonely barn outside of town doesn’t hold up when you really think about it.
When Luke writes that there was “no room in the inn,” the word “inn” refers to something quite different from our notions of temporary lodging. The word “inn” comes from the Greek katalyma, which literally means “a place to stay.” There is an entirely different word for a commercial inn, which means Mary and Joseph didn’t cruise the town looking at La Quintas and Best Westerns until finally spotting an empty barn out back where they could squat for the night.
This “place to stay” refers to the extremely common guest room in Palestinian homes of that region. Apparently, all the guest rooms were full, but first century homes would also have another small room attached to their house, where the animals (and manger) were kept. Mary and Joseph, then, would most likely have been welcomed by a local family into this spare room, because it would have been unthinkable for a Palestinian Jewish family to turn someone away, especially a woman about to deliver a baby.
As sweetly sentimental as a barn under the stars may be, and as much as we enjoy a few curmudgeonly innkeepers in Christmas pageants, mostly what we’ve done is bury the Nativity under layers of mythology. The “true story” is almost certainly that Mary delivered the infant Jesus, attended by local midwives in a spare room of an ordinary home. The people of Bethlehem offered the best they could, and likely hosted the Holy Family for weeks or even months, which is why, when the magi finally arrived, they found the family in a house (Matt 2:11). The story of the lonely family in a solitary stable is a sweet fantasy, but it has the effect of trapping the story within a snow globe.
When we accept that Mary and Joseph were in someone’s home – people who had to deal with the interruption and inconvenience, who had to help, and who had to make space smack in the center of their lives – it breaks open the snow globe and asks some important questions of us. Are we ready to answer the knock on our door? Are we willing to make space in the middle of our lives, in the heart of our most personal and intimate places? Are we willing to move Christ out of the lonely barn on the outskirts of town, and into a place we cannot avoid?
This time of year, we hear a lot about “Keep Christ in Christmas,” which is certainly nice enough, but the problem is that all too often, once we stop keeping Christmas, we stop trying to keep Christ around, too. That’s why our calling is to more than “Keep Christ in Christmas,” but “Keep Christ in Christians.” Because we can call him Emmanuel all we want, but Christ will only really be God-with-us when we invite him actually be with us.
So, let’s invite Jesus to be with us beyond the day when the presents have all been unwrapped and the decorations come down. Let’s keep him in the middle of things when the New Year rolls around, and our holiday buzz wears off. Let’s keep him at the center of our lives long after we’ve stopped “keeping Christmas,” because when we let Christ inside, when we let him inhabit the most intimate parts of our lives, we will finally understand what Emmanuel really means.
So prepare him room, friends. Answer his knock. Welcome him home. Be interrupted and inconvenienced by him. Invite him not only into your heart, but into the heart of your life. For the love that came down at Christmas wants to come to you, too.
 See Kenneth Bailey’s work Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (IVP Academic, 2008, pp 25-37), which unpacks the narrative, cultural, and historical absurdities of popular notions of the Nativity.