When we sing Away in a Manger, we still picture a crib for Jesus' bed. This is perhaps because we don't have anything to relate a manger to in our own experience. Laying a newborn baby down to rest in anything but a comfortable little bed is unimaginable to us. One of the unique features of the Christmas story is that due to the intervention of history, a Roman Emperor's call for a census, Jesus came into the world under circumstances that were far from ideal. Rather than preparing to give birth in the safety and comfort of her home, Mary embarked with Joseph on an arduous journey to Bethlehem in the final days of her pregnancy. Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary resided, lie in the hills of Northern Israel, not far from the Sea of Galilee. Since Joseph came from Bethlehem in Judaea, just outside of Jerusalem, they had to travel a long way by donkey and by foot back to his hometown to register for the census. Upon their arrival in Bethlehem, it would seem likely that Joseph sought out relatives with whom to stay in his hometown. Although the traditional interpretation of Joseph and Mary's accommodations is that there was no room in the "inn", a closer look shows that the same word is more often translated as "home".
Ancient Near Eastern society valued hospitality, especially extending a warm welcome to family. This is why it seems unlikely that Joseph would have needed to stay at a local inn. Since Joseph almost certainly had relatives in his hometown, how did he and Mary end up staying among the animals on the night of Jesus' birth? Two factors that likely contributed to this unusual circumstance were a lack of space to provide adequate hospitality and the design of Jewish homes during that time period.
First, the biblical narrative suggests that the predicament was that there was not enough room for Joseph and Mary. It seems strange that among family a woman due to give birth any moment would not receive priority. This may have been the simple logistical problem that too many family members converged on Bethlehem for the census at the same time. While traveling slowly to keep Mary safe, it is also possible that they were among the last to arrive in town leaving them to claim the last bit of available space. Yet another possibility is that Joseph's family disapproved of the perceived scandal surrounding Mary's pregnancy and treated them accordingly.
The second factor is that the design of ancient Jewish homes typically involved a single level with blocked off rooms and a common area that typically housed the family's domestic animals at night. If there were no rooms left for Joseph and Mary, the only place for them to stay was in the common area of the house, not unlike our living rooms, among the animals. What then was the manger that Mary lay Jesus in after wrapping him in swaddling clothes? Far from the quaint little wooden cradle of our imagination, Jesus' bed was a single block of stone with the top chiseled away to leave space to hold animal feed. The King of Heaven come down, lay in a trough meant not for holding babies but for feeding animals.
When our tour guide in Israel first pointed out this manger among the ruins at Megiddo, the group found it hard to believe her. It was so different than we had imagined. Yet a significant part of the Christmas story is that from the moment Jesus entered the world, he identified with people everywhere who have no proper place to lay their head. This newborn baby came to us not for the comfort of a well-suited home but to be received by those for whom he came to give his life.
How do we welcome Jesus, providing hospitality like we would for close friends or family during the Christmas season? Jesus said that whatever we do for those in need, we do to him (Matt.25:37). We provide hospitality to Jesus by feeding the hungry, giving drinks to the thirsty, inviting in the lonely, providing clothes for those who cannot afford them, caring for those who are sick, and visiting those who are in prison.
If Joseph and Mary were to visit us with their newborn baby Jesus, would we leave them to sleep in our living rooms, providing that which was meant to hold food for our pets as a place for the baby to lay? Or would we offer the very best space in the house for them to rest? How we respond to Jesus' challenge to care for those who are in need is the best indicator of the kind of hospitality that we are offering to him with our lives. Let's dedicate ourselves to assisting those who lay their heads in "mangers" all over the world this Christmas night.
If you are interested in connecting to organizations in East Africa that care for the needy, please let me know and I will be happy to do whatever I can to help provide you with an opportunity to show hospitality to Jesus by loving people.