Updated: Dec 25, 2021
Lectionary reading for 12/24/2021: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-7, 8-20
Selected passage for reflection: Luke 2:1-7, 8-20
The Birth of Jesus
2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The Shepherds and the Angels
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
I recently gave birth to my second Child, Zoe. Pregnancy is an advent in and of itself, as a mother prepares for the coming of her child. Being pregnant and giving birth before this year’s Advent has made me feel keenly aware of Mary’s experience as a soon-to-be mother. It has also made me suspicious of our traditional narratives we have around Jesus’s birth.
Most Christians are familiar with Jesus’ birth story. We have seen dozens of Christmas pageants and theatrical representations of a young Joseph and Mary traveling far from home, Mary about to give birth, just to be turned away at the inn. We sing songs of baby Jesus asleep in the manger, filled with straw and surrounded by animals. One of those popular songs even has us believe that Jesus doesn’t cry. The nativity sets in our homes portray Mary as the sole woman on the scene—no midwives or relatives or peers helping her give birth or care for her postpartum. According to my own experiences of giving birth, and other stories in the Bible, it is highly unlikely that Mary gave birth alone in a barn, but these images of the first Christmas are so ingrained in our cultural subconscious that we rarely question if they are accurate.
In his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth E. Bailey examines the critical flaws in our western assumptions of Jesus’ birth story with the following anthropological insights:
Joseph was returning to his village of origin, and would have been accepted and welcomed into the homes of any of his extended family or any neighbors that were friends with that extended family.
Joseph was a part of a “royal” bloodline since he was a descendent of King David. Being from a famous family would have made Joseph welcome in any home in Bethlehem, which was known locally as the “City of David.”
Every culture gives special attention to a woman giving birth. Rural communities the world over have always assisted their own in childbirth no matter their circumstances. Are we to believe that Bethlehem was different and refused to help one of their own community during a time of need--refusing shelter and medical care to someone from the line of David in the “City of David?”
Mary had relatives in the hills of Judea, and Bethlehem was in the center of Judea. If Joseph had been unable to find adequate shelter in Bethlehem, surely Mary could have gone to stay with Elizabeth and Zachariah.
Joseph had time to make adequate arrangements for his family. Luke 2:4 says, “Joseph and Mary went up from Galilee to Judea” and verse 6 states, “while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. Christmas pageants have us believe that Mary was about to burst and therefore Joseph accepted any accommodation, even a stable, when the reality is that they were in town at least days if not weeks beforehand.
So if all these traditional assumptions we have of Jesus’ birth are flawed, how did we get such a vivid and erroneous picture in our heads? Bailey asserts that a Christian novel, produced about 200 years after Christ’s birth, is partly to blame. The novel, titled The Protevangelium of James, written by an author that was not familiar with Jewish culture or Palestinian geography, depicted Mary giving birth alone in a cave on her way to Bethlehem. Although the account was criticized by Latin scholars and popes of the time, it was nevertheless translated into multiple languages and captured the imaginations of much of Europe and the Middle East at that time.
Given the above flawed assumptions, we still need to ask the following questions: Where was the manger and what was the inn? In our western minds, when we hear the word manger, we think stable or barn, but that would not have been true of ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Although the rich may have had separate “storehouses” for grain and possibly animals, the average Palestinian housed their animals in their homes, that often had only two rooms—a room for guests, and a room for the family that often included the family’s livestock. The main family room is where the family cooked, ate, slept, and lived. Closest to the door, often a few feet lower than the rest of the family room, the animals would be sheltered at night, protecting the animals from theft and the elements, and providing warmth for the family. Mangers were often dug right into the floor of the family room for cows. While sheep may have used a wooden manger or trough. Bailey provides scriptural and anthropological evidence supporting this understanding of Jesus’ birthplace as a two-room house, with one family room and a second floor, or back “guest room.”
Bailey goes on to explain that the Greek word translated into English as “inn” was katalyma, which actually has three meanings: house, guest room or inn. Bailey asserts that katalyma has been mistranslated into English, and that pandocheion, mentioned in the story of the Good Samaritan, translated as a commercial inn, would have been a much better word choice had the author actually been describing a hotel or inn. In this case, katalyma more accurately depicts a guest room that is a part of a private house. It is likely that Joseph went to the house of one of his family friends, and that family was already housing guests in their guest room, so they opened their family room for Mary and Joseph to stay with them. Bailey explains that the men would have naturally vacated the space, and a midwife and other women would have come in to assist Mary with the birth. After the birth, Jesus was wrapped in a blanket, and laid in the manger filled with straw, in the family room.
In Luke 2:8-14, the shepherds are the first to hear the message of Jesus’ birth. Shepherds were considered near the bottom of the social strata and would have been intimidated to visit the “King of kings” for fear they would have been shunned as unclean. The fact that Jesus was born and residing in a common two-room house with locals from Bethlehem was a sign that they would be accepted.
Our Western imagination of Mary and Joseph being cast off to give birth alone in a barn distracts us from the greater significance of Jesus’ birth story—that Jesus was born amongst humble people in humble circumstances. Jesus was not set apart and alone at birth, but “took on skin and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:8). Bailey puts it beautifully. “The shepherds left the holy family while praising God for the birth of the Messiah and for the quality of the hospitality in the home in which he was born. This is the capstone of the story of the shepherd. The child was born for the likes of the shepherds—the poor, the lowly, the rejected. He also came for the rich and the wise who later appear with gold, frankincense and myrrh (p. 36).”
How does understanding this ancient Middle Eastern context change your views of Jesus and his birth? What images now stand out to you that you didn’t see before? Although it might feel painful to re-write the Christmas plays you grew up with, how might this Middle Eastern understanding of Luke 2 enrich your understanding of Christ?
Are there, perhaps, other biblical stories that you have misunderstood due to your own cultural biases? How might you look through the eyes of other cultures to get a fuller understanding of scripture?
Jesus, born in a peasant home and sheltered by common people. Knowing that you were born in a common home of meager means, helps me discard any shame I may have for what I lack, and helps me refocus on what I have and can give to others. Jesus, knowing that your first guests were poor shepherds, challenges me to remember that your Good News has always been for the poor, vulnerable and rejected first and foremost. During this season of Christmas, I pray that I would be hospitable to those who need a place to rest and that my words and actions would be Good News to the poor. Amen.
About the Author
Julia Styles is a mother, wife, spiritual director and intercultural leadership consultant, living in Atlanta, Georgia. She has a Masters in Christian Ministry from North Park Theological Seminary and a Masters in International Public Affairs from the University of Wisconsin. She is passionate about supporting women in ministry, and improving the cultural competency of the North American church.