Monday, December 2, 2013

The One Word That Changes the Christmas Story

The scene is familiar. Animals mull around the stable. Mary and Joseph huddle close, their faces beaming as they gaze upon the Christ Child in pristine white swaddling clothes, lying silently in the manger. The stable doors are open, and from one side, shepherds gather near, almost glowing from their recent angelic encounter. From the other side, three kings from far countries file in, offering gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the new King. Above the barn, a supernatural star in the sky offers a spotlight to frame the Christmas card moment.

And there’s another scene, perhaps not as classic but just as recognizable these days. Mary, no longer able to ride atop Joseph’s donkey, lies down on the dusty streets of Bethlehem, as Joseph frantically attempts to secure lodging for the night. Their timing is tragic. They’ve just arrived in Bethlehem to register for the census when Mary suddenly goes into labor. No one in town has mercy on the couple, save a half-hearted innkeeper who can’t offer a sheltered corner in his inn but only the cave out back where he keeps his animals. Minutes later, Mary cries out in pain, sweat pouring from her forehead, as she delivers the baby Jesus. She and Joseph are alone. No shepherds have yet arrived, no magi from afar—the only ones to greet the newborn king are the disrupted sheep and donkeys nearby.

The first scene is easily dismissed as a fraud by anyone who studies Matthew’s and Luke’s Christmas accounts carefully. There is no indication from the biblical text that the shepherds and wise men appeared together or that Jesus didn’t cry like any other infant. The wise men were almost certainly not royals, and we have no idea how many were there. The second account is more appealing to modern ears. It’s gritty, and therefore seems more likely, more realistic. It’s riveting to think of the heroism of Joseph and Mary—especially Mary—all alone, the odds and the elements against them.

But what if both scenes are off? What if both say more about us than they do about the parents God chose for His Son? The first scene I described—the Christmas card scene—makes Mary seem otherworldly. No one looks that good after having just given birth. The second scene—the bloody, sweaty manger scene—also has little basis in reality, given what the biblical text tells us about Jesus’ birth. The truth, I believe, hinges largely on one word.

In Luke 2:7, we read, “And she 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” (esv). At the risk of robbing small children of a meaty part in the church nativity play, I’d like to suggest there was no innkeeper at all. The Greek word kataluma, translated “inn,” is probably best understood as “guest room.” You see, we know the word Luke likes to use for “inn.” He uses it later when telling the story of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37, especially v. 34), and the word he uses is not kataluma. When kataluma does show up later in Luke’s Gospel, it’s used to describe the upper room (or “guest room”) inside a house, where Jesus and His disciples share their last Passover meal, before Jesus is betrayed (see Luke 22:11).

So how does properly defining this one word change the Christmas story? Joseph and Mary were not strangers in a strange city. Most likely, they were welcomed guests in the home of one of Joseph’s relatives. After all, Bethlehem was his family’s hometown. But because so many people traveled to register for the census, the home’s guest room was full, so Mary gave birth in the room below, in the area reserved for animals to sleep on cold nights. There’s no indication that Mary went into labor the night she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem either; Luke tells us she gave birth simply “while they were there” (2:6)—no rejection by the townspeople, no frantic search for a place to give birth. Mary’s struggle was likely no different than any other woman’s in the first century.

The Christmas story is not the harrowing tale of a virgin mother who stood against all odds to deliver a child in a hostile world. Mary was faithful, obedient, and willing to serve God through extraordinary circumstances. She may have faced a scandal in Nazareth when news of her pregnancy surfaced in town, but God provided for His divinely appointed vessel. Joseph was a righteous man who provided for her physical needs, even securing a relatively comfortable place for her to give birth. And I have no doubt that the God to whom she sang praises provided for her spiritual needs, reassuring her when doubts pressed in.

The special details of Jesus’ birth bring glory to Him. The angels announced His birth to shepherds, and a star in the heavens announced it to wise men from the East. Poor and rich, Jew and Gentile alike—all have reason to celebrate. While Mary should be upheld as an example of faith, the Christmas story is not really about her; it’s about Jesus. And her part in the story, which began with a miraculous conception and ended with a fairly standard, first century labor-and-delivery experience, brings Jesus glory too . . . even if our Christmas cards seem so much more dramatic.

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