There is something poignant and powerful about the word “home” at Christmas. Maybe this year it will be even more so. With government imposed lockdowns and this year’s coronavirus making life complicated, we may not be able to be home for Christmas. Or we may not be able to be together, at home, for Christmas. For some this is true every year – there are empty places at Christmas.
The Christmas story as it is told usually includes some reference to the wonder of God the Son leaving his heavenly home to come down to earth. His welcome? Not a stunning palace and well dressed attendants. No, humble shepherds, gathered around an animal feeding trough. There wasn’t even place in the inn, so it all happened in a lowly stable.
At the risk of stomping on your nativity set, can I point out that reality may be even better than folklore? What actually happened is slightly different than what we tend to hear each year. 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 Israeli motel offering rough accommodation for traveling Jews. 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 family heritage would have received a welcome in the little city of David. And we do a disservice to Middle Eastern folks if we think young pregnant Mary wouldn’t have been looked after.
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 the animal’s security and for their central heating benefits). 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. It isn’t probably what we would choose, but it has a certain charm, nonetheless.
This was typical of the homes then, and culturally this would have been the situation. Perhaps not quite the quaint stable, but what a gripping image! The Messiah wasn’t born in a palace, but in a humble home.
Incidentally, the reference to the manger would have been important in the message of the angels to motivate the shepherds to come for their visit. After all, why would they leave their fields to go looking for a baby with a heavenly fanfare announcing his birth? Maybe if they knew he would be in a humble home like their own? Furthermore, if he was actually born in a stable, the shepherds would have insisted on a transfer to their humble homes – again, Middle Eastern hospitality! 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.
Maybe this is a good year to make something of the stable correction. Maybe this year we should help people to understand that the stable image may be humble, but it probably isn’t accurate. And actually, the living room of a poor peasant family is just as humble. We may not be able to gather people together in our homes this Christmas, but we know that Jesus would come into a home like ours. He was born into a more humble home that first 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. Our God, with us!