Today, we end our journey retracing Mary and Joseph’s steps with the long-awaited arrival of the Christ Child.
After Mary and Joseph reached Bethlehem, the time came for her delivery, though Scripture doesn’t tell us how long after their arrival that it began.
We typically think of the story in this way: Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem, and Joseph, being a typical guy, has not made reservations in advance at the local inn. The city is brimming with visitors, and hence there is no room in the inn. The innkeeper offers them space in the stable, and it is there that the baby was born.
This is the version of the story that most of us have grown up with, and parts of it certainly are true. Mary did give birth in a stable, and she laid the Christ Child in a feeding trough. However, there is some debate about whether Mary and Joseph could find no room in the inn, and for that matter whether it was an “inn” at all. Consider also that Joseph was from Bethlehem, so it seems logical that Mary and Joseph would have stayed with Joseph’s family.
The Greek word that is translated in most versions of Luke’s Gospel as “inn” is kataluma. This word’s only other appearance in the Gospels comes when Jesus sends his disciples ahead to find a room they can use for their Last Supper together. That room, as you’ll recall, was not a room in an inn, but a guest room in a house. This is the more accurate translation of kataluma—it is a guest room.
A simple first-century home featured a central room that served as the kitchen and living area. Off of that room would be the sleeping quarters, where parents slept. Typically there would be a guest room where children slept, but which they yielded to guests when there was company. This was the kataluma. When there were guests, the children slept with the parents or in the main living space.
There was also a stable, or a small barn—think of it as a garage—that was either behind the home or, in the case of homes built atop or around caves, beneath the home. The stable protected the animals from predators and thieves at night. I've included a photo I took while hiking in the Judean wilderness this past February. This home near Bethlehem is undoubtedly larger than the home where Jesus was born, but it gives you a sense of the humble conditions of his birth. Note the cave in the foreground where the animals are still kept to this day. This is the kind of place I imagine Mary gave birth to Jesus. (Sorry it is a bit out of focus - I had to blow the pic up and crop it as it was shot from a mile away.)
Assuming that Joseph’s family was of modest income, they would have had one guest room. The guest room might hold bed mats for six people sleeping side by side. The main living room and kitchen could hold several more. Here’s the question: How many of Joseph’s extended family were in Bethlehem because of the census? If Joseph had four or five siblings and each of them had family, it is easy to see why there would have been no room in the kataluma.
Another argument can be made for why, even if the house was not overcrowded, Joseph’s family would have set up a room in the stable in which Mary could give birth. Leviticus 12:1-7 notes that when a woman gives birth to a son, she becomes unclean until her child is circumcised on the eighth day after he is born. It is the discharge of blood and water at childbirth that causes her to be ritually unclean, just as a woman was considered ritually impure or unclean during her monthly period. Leviticus 15:19-23 notes that anyone who touches a woman who has a “flow of blood” will also become ritually unclean until evening. Further, anything she lies on becomes unclean. Anything that touches her becomes unclean. Anyone who touches anything she lies on becomes unclean. You begin to see the problem with Mary’s giving birth in the guest room, where everyone else would have planned to sleep. Giving birth in the guest room renders the room and all who touch anything in it unclean.
It seems likely, then, that Joseph’s parents would have set up a birthing room in the barn to give Mary and Joseph privacy and to keep everyone and everything the house from becoming ritually unclean. For a poor family with limited resources and only a single guest room, the stable may have been the best option they could offer.
Understanding this, I still imagine, as Mary sat on the birthing stool, that between contractions she must have been forcing back the tears. This was not how it was supposed to be—giving birth in her in-laws’ barn. I imagine the midwife saying to her, “Child, it’s going to be all right. Trust me. I’ve delivered in worse set- tings. At least you have your privacy. I’m here, and God is here, and you’re going to be fine.”
Several years ago I preached a series of sermons inspired by a line from Andrew Peterson’s song “Labor of Love,” in which he sang, “It was not a silent night.” This was not a silent night. Our Christmas carols sometimes miss the reality of what Mary was experiencing that night. We sing, “All is calm, all is bright round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild,” but it was not like that.
It was disappointing and depressing and hard. Life can be that way. And the long-awaited Messiah’s birth came in the midst of the messiness and disappointment and pain. He was born, not in a hospital, not even in a guest room, but in a stable, among the animals, with a feeding trough for his first bed.
Not much has changed, has it? Life is still hard; I think we can agree that the events of the last ten days remind us that darkness is all around. Yet today we celebrate the Light who came to push back the darkness:
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined" (Isaiah 9:2).