Growing up, December was the season of nativity plays. There was often one at school, always one at church, and maybe an extra thrown in by some over-enthusiastic parents if we were really lucky. We waited with baited breath every year to see who would get each part – Mary was the true position of honour, although most girls thought it was more fun to dress up as an angel with all that glitter and a tinsel halo.
Every nativity was the same. Joseph and Mary (with strategically placed pillow under her costume) would wander slowly down the church aisle towards Bethlehem, right in front of the altar. There, Joseph would patiently and diligently knock on the door of at least three inns, with each innkeeper turning him away with shorter and ruder responses (no wonder this was a popular role for some five year old boys – church-authorised cheek in front of mum).
Finally someone would uncaringly shrug that if they really had nowhere else, there was always the stable (or cave) where the animals were. I was always slightly appalled that this was where the precious baby had been born (even though I was proud of my dad’s handiwork building the wooden manger that was wheeled out each year).
It didn’t seem right somehow that Mary and Joseph had been so obedient, so willing to say yes to this huge responsibility, this massive shift in their lives and world – and then God would somehow forget to provide a decent place for their holy son to be born.
Last year I read Nick Page’s brilliant book ‘The Wrong Messiah’. His books should be read far more widely than they are – this one brought me to tears and kept me reading well into the night for the last few chapters as Jesus and his disciples neared Jerusalem. It brought me back into the centre of a story that had become overly-familiar and lost its wonder.
Many of the usual “mistakes” of the average nativity play are well documented and I knew them already. There weren’t “three kings”, rather a group of “magi” or wise men, who arrived some time after the birth. And I even already knew that the word “inn” has been generally mis-translated or misunderstood in our language, and that it refers to the lower area of nearly every peasant house at the time, where the animals were brought in to at night to ensure they were not stolen, were safe, and to provide warmth.
Nick Page unpacked the story further for me. Joseph and Mary are travelling back to Bethlehem for the census, because this is the town where Joseph’s family is from. He’s going home. Maybe not to the place he was brought up, and not to the place where they’ll raise this family together. But this is a town packed with his people, his relatives, his tribe. Yes, it may well have been more busy than usual if people were on the move for the census – but tribe and family were paramount in Jewish culture; hospitality was a sacred virtue.
And so the people of Bethlehem, poor and crowded as they were, found space for this young couple where they could.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.- Luke 2, NIV
There was no guest room, and so Mary and Joseph are invited in to their homes as family. And while they are staying there, Mary gives birth, probably surrounded by competent and wise women, supporting her through her first childbirth.
Jesus was born amongst family, people who cared, people who offered what they had, little as it was.
For me, this changes the whole story. Because in the old version, Jesus is rejected by everyone except a few half-asleep shepherds. But in this new reading, Jesus is welcomed in by the very people he came for – the poor and downtrodden, the ones who may not have much to give, but who make space in their homes and their hearts for this new child.
This story asks me, how am I making space this Christmas? I’m lacking energy this advent, behind on every tradition and expectation, longing just for a few days of rest to catch up on sleep and forget the hundreds of emails needing an answer. But none of that matters if there’s space in my heart. He’ll accept what I can bring, what I can offer this Christmas, small though it may be. He’ll make a home here, in me.
I really wanted to quote Nick Page’s book directly but I’ve lent it out to someone (I forget who) and it hasn’t made its way back to me yet. Most of the ideas here were informed by his writing, so all credit to him and his superior knowledge of Greek, and Jewish culture! I’m also paraphrasing from memory so any mistakes are likely my own, not his. And now go buy all his books please…