Every Christmas, in schools, and playgroups throughout the country, the inn keeper in the story of the nativity plays an important role.
In one nativity play there was a boy who was very disappointed about not being chosen to play Joseph in the school nativity play. Instead he was given the role of the innkeeper instead, and over the weeks leading up to the play plotted his revenge. The day of the performance came. Mary and Joseph came to the inn and knocked on the door. The innkeeper opened the door a crack and looked at them coldly. "Can you give us a room for the night?" asked Jospeh. Then the innkeeper flung the door wide, beamed at them and said, "Come in, come in! You can have the best room in the hotel!" There was a pause. But Joseph was a quick thinker. He looked over the innkeeper's shoulder, then turned to Mary and said, "We're not staying in a dump like that. Come on, Mary, we'll sleep in the stable!"
The image of the manger and inn has firmly established itself in our imaginations, in nativity plays, and on Christmas cards, we have this picture of innkeepers and cattle gently lowing. But there is very strong likelihood that it never happened like that at all.
Here is what Luke says,
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. He went to be registered with Mary to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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.' (Luke 2:4-7)
But the truth is that Luke may not have meant 'inn' at all. The Greek word he uses is Kataluma which has been translated as 'inn', is more accurately translated as guest room, or spare room, or anywhere you might put visitors.
Luke uses the word kataluma twice in his gospel: once in this passage and once to describe the room in which the Last Supper took place; the 'upper room'. In Luke 22:11 two disciples are told to go and ask, 'Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' No theologian, suggests that the last supper took place in an inn. In fact, the whole tone of Jesus' preparations for the Last Supper indicate a concern to find a private space, a space away from threats and interruptions and away from the vast crowds in Jerusalem for the Passover.
When Luke does come to talk about an inn, he uses an entirely different word. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the victim of the thief's is taken to an inn, and here Luke uses a different Greek word pandocheion.
This indicates that either Luke is being inconsistent in his choice or words, or he didn't mean an inn at all. Luke is however someone he likes to get the details right. So Luke says, not that the inn was full, but that there was no room in the guest room, or spare room.
This actually makes more sense of the story, because for Joseph to return to Bethlehem for a census indicates that he had strong links there – and probably had relatives living in Bethlehem. It would therefore make sense that he and Mary would have stayed with them.
And just because Joseph travelled for the census doesn't mean that a lot of other people did. There may have been compelling reasons for him to escape Nazareth for a while, to escape the rumours that must have circulated regarding Mary's pregnancy. Certainly Luke gives no indication that Bethlehem was full.
This means that sadly for schools and playgroups everywhere, the story of the hardhearted innkeeper who grudgingly opens the stable round the back may well be a misreading of the story.
On top of this, there may not have even been a stable as well! Luke records that Jesus was placed in a manager, and animals feeding trough, but this would not have necessarily been in a stable.
We have to remember that Mary and Joseph were poor. When Mary receives news that she is going to give birth to the Messiah, she sings a song full of delight that the poor and hungry have been blessed by God. "He (God) has brought down the powerful from their thrones," she sings, "and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away." (Luke 1:52-53)
This song makes no sense at all unless Mary – and the man she was to marry – were 'lowly', poor, and even hungry. The language is full of the idea that God has chosen to bless the oppressed, rather than the oppressors. Mary herself was clearly lowly, she was probably only about 16 years old at the time she gave birth to Jesus, because most Jewish girls would have got married around this age. And Mary and Joseph were clearly poor, we know this because Luke records that when they went to the Temple to offer a sacrifice following the birth of Jesus, they sacrificed a 'pair or turtledoves or two young pigeons.' – which was the sacrifice you gave if you could not afford to sacrifice a sheep.
Given this information, we can assume that Joseph came from a simple, poor background, and simple homes did not have stables!
The homes of ordinary poor families of the time were frequently built on two levels: there was the lower level where everyday living took place, and an upper level where the family slept. Or if they lived in caves, as many people did, the family would have slept in the central part of the cave, with the animals kept at the entrance, where they would have acted as a kind of primitive central heating!
So what Luke may be saying is that there was no spare room in the residential part of the house. The place was packed out. So they had to go to the lower level, where the animals were kept. This would explain why a stable is never mentioned. There wasn't one, the animals were kept downstairs in the home; what happened was that Jesus was put downstairs with the animals, because the rest of the house was full.
What difference does this make, apart from ruining many a nativity play? Well for one thing it shows the truth of the incarnation, of Jesus becoming man. It brings alive the fact that Jesus was born in a very specific place at a very specific time. And that place was a cramped peasant's home in the tiny town of Bethlehem.
We can see that Jesus was born into a lower class family. It blows apart the cosy Christmas card picture of a nice warm, clean stable, with golden straw illuminated by the flowing halo round Jesus' head. In many ways it's a much more 'ordinary' scene. Although in Jesus' birth was highly unusual: very few births are announced by angelic choirs, in other ways it was almost painfully normal. The home was an ordinary peasant dwelling; the first cot an animals feeding trough. In some ways, as well, the birth is more shocking. The Son of God is laid, not in some kind of rustic cot, but in the place where usually the animals ate. He slept in hay full of ticks and fleas, in a home that was small and cramped. His parents were poor, his mother was only a young teenager.
The Renaissance paintings which inform our view of the event were painted for rich, wealthy patrons. They did not want to see conditions of slum like poverty, even had the artist managed to interpret the text correctly. So we have become conditioned to see a roomy stable full of colourful characters. We have sanitised the unsanitary stable. We have swept it clean from the dirty straw, given the animals a wash and brush up, spared a bit of myrrh around to cover the unsavoury smell of sweat and animal dung.
To do so is to miss the point. The point behind Luke's depiction of the birth of Jesus is that it WAS dirty and smelly and poor and cramped and hard and utterly, utterly, wonderful.
And this is surely the more wonderful deeper truth. The mystery of Christmas is that God sank himself into our flesh. That the one who is beyond all space and time, who is uncreated and eternal, became one of us. Majesty in the midst of the mundane, holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world born on a dirty floor, through the womb of a teenager and in the presence of a carpenter. And the message of Christmas is that God in Jesus still comes to us, to our complicated, messy, broken lives, and by the power of his love can change and transform in ways we can hardly imagine.