The nativity service is enjoyed at Christmas time by people everywhere, so much so that there are now 3 nativity blockbusters all based around school productions of it! In recent years we have watched as new characters have been introduced as well, the legendary Octopus from love actually, and a couple of years back a number of churches hit the news for using Star Wars characters to help congregations connect with the story of Jesus’ birth.
The additions of the Octopus and Darth Vader are fairly obvious ones, but what if I told you that the donkey, the inn, the inn keeper, the stable and the hurried birth are also additions to what the Bible actually says happened.
You see, our traditional nativity service which is so loved and deeply rooted into western culture actually contains some critical problems. For example, does any society known to us fail to help a young woman about to give birth?
# Myth 1- No Vacancy
Have a look at the 4 gospels, no where will you find Mary and Joseph going from inn to inn and being turned away by people who were unable to help them.
New Testament Scholar, Kenneth Bailey suggests three critical problems with this view.
1. The shepherds came to visit and Luke says that they went home “praising God for ALL that they had seen”. All! Everything! If they were unhappy with the conditions and the hospitality they would have said something like “o my goodness, come back with us and allow our woman to take better care of you”.
2. The second problem is that Joseph is from the line of David, and they go to Bethlehem, the city of…. DAVID! He would have been known there! (He’s kind of a big deal, probably has many leather bound books and an apartment smelling of rich mahogany – I really hope someone gets this movie reference!). He would have had family there. And even if they weren’t in, he comes from a royal line, someone would have welcomed him into their home.
3. Finally, earlier on in Luke we read about how Mary went to visit Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea and had been warmly welcomed. Bethlehem is at the centre of the hill country. If they really couldn’t have found shelter they could have gone and stayed with her. Especially as…
# Myth 2- Hurried Birth
… they were not in a rush! Luke 2:6 – “While they were there in Bethlehem, her days were fulfilled”. There is no sense of urgency here, they travelled to Bethlehem, they got settled somewhere suitable, and whilst they were there she gave birth.
The story of the young couple going from inn to inn and being turned away may make for a good school play, but it simply is not the picture we find in Scripture.
# Myth 3 – The Stable
Luke 2:7 – “and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn”.
It’s easy to understand where things have gone wrong from this key verse. We have read it with our western eyes. We read that Mary placed Jesus in a manger so we think “they must have been in a stable, why else would there be a manger?”. However someone from that time and place would understand this very differently. First though, let’s look closer at the word ‘inn’.
The latest version of the NIV has now translated this correctly, as ‘guest room’. The word (greek: Katalyma) is the same word used for the room where Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples. It is not the word Luke uses for inn, such as in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Archaeologists have discovered that most homes from that time would have a family room and a guest room. This guest room would sometimes be upstairs (like the last supper), or sometimes to the side of the family room. This was very practical as people travelled long distances to visit relatives so they would need somewhere to stay before the journey home again.
So, Mary and Joseph were told that there was no room in the guest room of the home of the relative they had travelled to. Presumably then, they were invited into the family room.
This would also explain the manger (see the picture below). In the family room there would often be a slight dip or slope where any animals the family had would stay at night. This worked as a kind of early central heating system, keeping the room warm but it also kept the animals safe from theft. In-between where the animals slept and where the family slept there would be a manger separating them, from which the animals would eat if they got hungry at night.
There was a manger in the family room.
The Real Christmas
Luke 2:7 again- “and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the guest room”.
The story is not about a new young family left to fend for themselves outside in a cold stable with animals all around them. Its a story of a new family, welcomed into the heart of the family home at a difficult time. With a baby on the way they likely pushed the animals outside for a short time and swept out the manger creating a make shift cot.
Perhaps this is the challenge of Christmas. Its easier to leave Jesus ‘outside in the stable’ isn’t it? Because when we invite him into the heart of our homes, his radical love and forgiveness spurs us into a life of worship and surrender. If we allowed the King of Kings into our home, what would change?
Christmas is about Emmanuel, God with us! NOT God left outside, but God close to us, working with us to transform us into the human-beings we were always meant to be, with Jesus as our rightful King. Jesus has the power to transform our homes, work places, schools and universities, if only we would allow him to be King in those places. Sadly so often we leave Jesus outside in the stable, not confronting us, in no way the centre of our lives. What a privilege that God in Jesus would make his home with us at last.
Applying this to our youth ministries…
I believe passionately that young people need to hear the Bible as it was originally understood, it is so easy for us to read our own ideas and culture into it thus turning it into a westernised script ripe and ready for school plays rather than reading it as it was intended within its middle-eastern context. When we learn to listen to the God who reveals himself in Jesus (a middle-eastern Jewish man) we allow the text to be truly authoritative.
The challenge for us and our youth groups then is to learn to read the Bible. When we read the gospels for example, how would Jesus’ words have resinated with his Jewish contemporaries? How did his stories break down the traditions and worldview of his day?
Watch out for future posts as I plan on sharing resources that I have found helpful in this.
A fun activity for your youth group…
Get the group to spend some time painting/drawing a traditional nativity, give them some nice paper and materials and encourage them to really go for it (great for an end of year Christmas activity). Once they have finished choose the winner for the best art work and award them with a prize! Now for the fun/ cruel bit (I sometimes call this session ‘the youth worker who stole Christmas’).
Begin to talk through the Christmas story, every time you get to something that is not actually in the bible (inn, inn keeper, animals- especially any donkeys!!! The flipping Christmas donkey has a song and now its own film!!! NO MENTION IN THE BIBLE!!, stable, star – if they say its in the east, its better translated ‘at its rising’, magi- they came a couple of years later) produce a pair of scissors and CUT IT OUT!
This can be really fun, and a little mean but it makes a great point! You end up with Jesus, his Mum & Dad and maybe some Shepherds.
Next have a picture ready of inside someones living room (amazing if you could get a parent involved to send you one!) and stick the remains into the living room. Discuss, what would it look like for this scene to happen in our homes?
Rather than leaving Jesus outside this Christmas, lets encourage our groups to reflect on the difference He makes when we welcome him in – and any Shepherds on the look out for the Messiah!
Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, SPCK, 2008.
Kenneth E. Bailey, Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama, IVP, 2013.
Lego photo taken from a Google images search: (http://keithjbaker.net/2012/12/09/was-jesus-born-in-a-barn/).