Looking for a story from the life of Jesus that features a donkey, and innkeeper? It is not the account of Jesus’ birth [try the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke chapter 10, for that.]
There is no mention of a donkey or an innkeeper in the account of Jesus’ birth [Luke 2].
In several English translations, there is an inn but this is a mistranslation of the word for the guest room.
Jesus was born in a family home, most probably (it is implied but we aren’t explicitly told) the home of Joseph’s parents. Most probably a home with one main room, and a smaller room in which Joseph and Mary were living at the time. Neither is there any evidence she arrived on the night she gave birth.
We are told that that small room had no room (space) for Mary to give birth, attended as she would have been by Joseph’s female relatives and in all likelihood the women who fulfilled the role of midwives in the community. It was a humble dwelling. So Jesus was born in the living room, a room shared both by animals, for warmth, and Joseph’s extended family. The manger was probably a bowl-shaped indent hollowed out of the stone floor, filled with clean and insulating hay – the ideal place for a new-born to sleep.
This is not a story of haphazard lack of planning, or (at this point) battling against the odds, or of a lack of welcome. It is the very opposite – a story of a community functioning as community. A story of God and his people very carefully planning and loving and witnessing together something simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary.
But why does it matter? Why do I care so much about how the story is told? Well, here are three reasons:
Firstly, the traditional Nativity presents Joseph as incompetent. But Matthew shows us he is a righteous man, hand-picked by God to raise his Son, a guardian and holder-of-ground for God and his family. This traditional depiction presents God as incompetent in his choosing, whereas the Gospels, taken together, present a long and careful planning.
Secondly, the traditional Nativity presents Mary as helpless, whereas Luke presents her as a feisty theologian who sings a song – often called the Magnificat – so revolutionary that it has been banned in many countries around the world. It tends not to be sung at Nativities. Mary, a taker-of-ground, eagerly expectant of what God might do.
Thirdly, the traditional Nativity presents Jewish people as inhospitable, failing to provide the basic care for a woman at her most vulnerable. This perpetuates anti-Semitism. It is true that as an adult Jesus’ teaching divided the community, but as a child he was welcomed by the people of Bethlehem – welcomed as the son of a descendant of King David in the small and fiercely proud community from where David had come.
But here is the thing: the stories we are told as children are the stories we hold on to. Hence the cultural resistance to hearing and telling the story of Jesus’ birth in any way that confronts our nostalgia but continues to balefully paint all manner of people in a bad light, rather than as dynamic aids to the purposes of God.
Surely Christmas deserves better.
[All the original ideas in this musing belong to Andrew Dowsett with editing from me.]
Blessings this Christmas