Christmas is a time when many people head home, or think of home, or long for home. For some it is a special time of great joy and satisfaction. For others it is a painfully empty season when memories of a home now broken by death or divorce come flooding back.
The Christmas story as it is told each year tends to include some reference to the wonder of God the Son leaving his heavenly home to come down to earth. His welcome? Humble shepherds. Animals by their trough. Not even any place in the inn, but just a lowly stable.
I am not wanting to tread on anyone’s nativity set, but things were slightly different than we tend to think. Luke 2 tells us that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
What was it really like? The “inn” was not a reference to a public inn as in the story of the Good Samaritan, an ancient motel of questionable standards. Rather the word used by Luke refers to the guest room attached to the back or the top of a single room family home. Joseph, with his heritage would have received a welcome in the city of David, not to mention his pregnant Jewish young lady (and if they hadn’t, then Mary’s relatives not too far away would have been offended that they didn’t head there).
They didn’t get the guest room, because other visitors were already there. Instead they were probably brought into the single room residence of this humble family in Bethlehem. At the front end of the room there would have been a drop down to the area where the animals would be kept at night (for their security and for central heating). The sheep would have a wooden or stone manger, the family cow and the donkey would eat from the trough cut into the floor at the end of the human living space.
This was typical of the homes then, and culturally this would have been the situation. Perhaps not quite the quaint stable, but what a startling image nonetheless! The Messiah wasn’t born in a palace, but in a humble home. (This, incidentally, would have been important information in the message of the angels to motivate the shepherds to come for their visit. Furthermore, if he were born in a stable, the shepherds would have insisted on a transfer to their humble homes.) The young family didn’t even get the guest room, but the special little one came in the family home, with the women of the home helping Mary, then the men coming in to gaze in wonder at the new boy.
When we study the details of the first Christmas we may find ourselves correcting a few of the Christmas card images. But far more importantly, we should find ourselves stirred to worship God more than ever. The real first Christmas is not a fairytale or a myth, it is the remarkable launch of a rescue mission that changes human history. We may be emotionally attached to the stable story, but let’s allow our hearts to be gripped by Christ’s move from heaven’s throne to a humble human home. What a guest!
Let’s sing with renewed passion this Christmas:
Christ by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
Christmas is a time when our thoughts turn toward home. What a truly glorious thought, that Christ left his home to come and be born in a humble human home. Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. He is our God, with us!
For more on the wonder of the Incarnation, please check out Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014).