I don’t know about you, but when I think of Christmas songs, this one is almost certainly one of the first ones to come to mind. Although it isn’t one of my favorites, certainly no collections of Christmas songs would be complete without it. It is also one of the Christmas songs I most love to hate on. I know Martin Luther supposedly wrote the lyrics to it as a means of teaching his children the Christmas story, but for some reason despite the evidence for this, I remain skeptical. When I imagine this song being written, I picture a guy who knows absolutely nothing about the Christmas story. he is placed in front of some idyllic nativity set and told this scene is all he really needs to know about Christmas. So he gathers a little information about who each person or thing is in the set and then starts putting words to paper without ever bothering to consult Matthew or Luke. I know this is not how it happened but this is how I like to pretend it happened.
I guess in a way my feelings about this song are about the same as the song’s feelings about the Christmas story. I know this is not how it really happened, but this is how we like to sing that it happened. I’m not being fair. There really isn’t much to the song, it is definitely a kids poem, and as far as kids poems go, it is worlds better than Rock-a-bye-baby. As soon as a child grows old enough to understand what is being said, that one is sure to give them nightmares. Ring \Around the Rosie? Great. Let’s sing a song about the bubonic plague. Come on kids, it’ll be fun!
Away in a manger… Why was Jesus really born in a manger? How have you been told the story? I have seen plenty of Christmas pageants in the thirty-nine Christmases I have been able to celebrate. For a while there it seemed like I was being dragged to at least two or three a year. I have even taken part in more than my fair share. Normally I played the part of Joseph or one of the wise guys. One role I don’t think I have ever played, but which is always a part of the play is that of the villainous innkeeper. That greedy heartless businessman cares not one whit for Mary’s huge belly and obvious contractions. “No room! There’s a barn in the back. I’d rather you do your screaming in there than out here in my yard where the paying customers might take notice. Hurry up. Get out of here.”
Did you know there is no innkeeper in the true Christmas story? The guy we like to shake our heads at as our children play their parts doesn’t even exist. If you don’t believe me, read it for yourself. What is worse, having them give birth in the manger was not an act of cruelty but rather an act of kindness. We have our modern conception of what that inn was and the wrong definition of the word room. Luke isn’t talking about a room like a living-room, a bedroom, or a hotel room. “Here’s your key sir, you are on the third floor to the left, room 312.” No. To get a better picture for our modern mind, imagine the scenario a bit more like this…
Work has Joe traveling for the holidays. He doesn’t like it, but it’s necessary. His fiance is nine months pregnant and ready to pop at any moment. Because he wants to be there when this very special boy is born, and because he wants to help her avoid the small town gossip that comes with being ten months engaged and nine months pregnant, Mary is traveling with him. Their destination town this night does not deserve the name town. It is more like two stoplights and a few houses in between. There is no Best Western here. There isn’t even an Econo Lodge. Nope. Instead, there is some sort of bed and breakfast called “The Barracks”. Five minutes outside of town the contractions start. As Joseph pulls in to “The Barracks” he sees about twenty cars already parked outside. What on earth is going on? This place is adequately named. There is only one room with about twenty barracks-style bunk beds and it looks as though most are occupied. The manager comes over, sees Mary just as another contraction hits. Compassion floods his face as he says, “This is not the place for you. Listen. I’ve got a private garage attached to the side of the building. I’ll move my car out and it will be empty and quiet. I will have blankets sent right down and as soon as I can talk someone out of their bunk, we will get one of those down there as well.”
This is much more like what really would have been happening that night in Bethlehem. To illustrate the manger and the inn I’d also like to point to two other Bible stories: Jephthah’s daughter and the Last Supper. Before entering battle, Jephthah promised God that he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house. Obviously, he wasn’t expecting that to be a person. No. Many homes in this region would have had what we would consider an attached garage for their animals. Jephthah was expecting an animal to exit from his house. Joseph was given the same such garage for his wife and soon to be child and given the time of year, it was almost certainly empty.
Many larger houses during Jesus time also would have had a guest room upstairs. This would have been one large room that would have been about the same size as the entire house and would have been guest lodgings for people coming to the Jewish celebrations in Jerusalem. Just think of the room Jesus and his disciples stayed in for the Last Supper. This was an upper room that was able to accommodate at least thirteen (probably more) people for a Jewish ritual meal. You could knock down the wall between my bedroom and living room and I still would not be able to accommodate that many people. There were probably many such rooms in various homes in Bethlehem that night but they also would all have likely held quite a few stinky, smelly, noisy, travelers. When Luke says there was no room in the inn. He wasn’t saying every room was booked. He was saying there was no appropriate, adequate, or suitable place for a woman in labor to give birth. The owner of the home was giving Jesus the best he had to offer. He doesn’t even get a mention in the recorded story and has been misunderstood by nearly all from that time to this, but even still he did the best thing he could have in that situation. That first Christmas, he made room for Jesus. This Christmas, have you?