With Christmas fast approaching, I thought it would be timely to present this excerpt from The Corinth Letters. Read it to find why I find Christmas pageants so frustrating (big hint: there was no inn keeper!)
During breaks, Emily, Mariam and Matt would sit on their camp stools drinking tea or coffee and chat. It was during one of these chats that the topic of Christmas came up again.
“What’s an Australian Christmas like, Matt?” asked Mariam.
“Ah, well, quite a bit different to what you’ve experienced, I’m sure,” replied Matt. “Firstly, since we’re in the southern hemisphere, Christmas occurs in the middle of summer. And it can get really hot! I’ve had Christmases where it’s been 40 degrees in the shade – that’s more than a 100 degrees Fahrenheit, by the way. What is completely bizarre, though, is that we still hold to lots of the northern hemisphere traditions. So Christmas dinner will consist of roast meat, often turkey, and sliced ham off the bone, with plum pudding and custard for dessert. And we sing carols about dashing through the snow while sweat pours off us in great swathes!”
Emily and Mariam chuckled at the incongruousness of it all.
“And do you have Christmas pageants?” asked Emily.
“Yes. Most churches do some sort of re-enactment of the Christmas story, usually with children playing all the parts. My family would usually go to church for that, the one day of the year that we would all go to church. We would open our presents early in the morning – as early as we could, usually. Then Mum would make us get dressed in our best clothes, which would usually be totally unsuitable to the hot weather, and we’d go to church. Then, afterwards we would head to whichever relative’s house had been selected for the family lunch. There would be bon bons… er, Christmas crackers, you call them,” added Matt when Emily had looked puzzled. “We’d tell each other the terrible jokes, moan about the poor-quality plastic toys and put the coloured paper hats on.”
“So did your Christmas pageant include the innkeeper?”
Matt stopped to remember the last one that he had attended. It had been quite a few years ago. “Yes, I’m pretty sure. It always seemed a bit weird to me, to be honest. Why on earth would the innkeeper send away a woman who is in the process of giving birth? Seemed pretty heartless to me.”
Emily’s eyes gleamed. “That’s because it’s completely wrong!”
Now it was Matt’s turn to look puzzled. Mariam, too, had turned to look at Emily questioningly.
“Let me explain,” Emily said, getting out her phone. She spent a couple of minutes looking up a couple of passages in her Bible app. “OK, here’s what it says in the old version of the NIV: ‘So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’
“Now there are two problems with the usual church presentation of this story. The first thing is that they usually portray Mary’s labour pains starting just as they are arriving in Bethlehem. But the text clearly states ‘while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born’. So Joseph is not the idiot he is made out to be, travelling with a nine-month pregnant woman. No, he planned ahead. They travelled to Bethlehem some time before the baby was due and so were very definitely settled somewhere when the birth occurred.
“But the second problem is that somewhere. Where did the birth take place? And where was there no room? Well, the word that is translated here as ‘inn’ is the Greek word kataluma. But elsewhere in the gospel of Luke, that same word is translated ‘upper room’. For example, when Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover, they do so in a kataluma. This word really means ‘guest room’ which in the houses of that time was often located in an upper part of the house. Now apparently there are some Greek texts where the word kataluma is used to refer to an inn, but these are rare. And there is a far more common word for ‘inn’. Which is why Luke uses a different word in the parable of the Good Samaritan: in that story, when the Samaritan takes the man who had been beaten up to an inn, the word used there is pandocheion, which really does mean ‘inn’ with an innkeeper and rooms that can be let for a price.
“So there was no inn in the Christmas story. Instead, Mary and Joseph were staying in a regular house, which makes complete sense when you consider that Joseph had returned to the place of his birth: he was returning to family. And in that culture, hospitality is central. There is no way that Joseph’s family would not make room for them. The problem is, though, that Joseph’s entire extended family had returned to Bethlehem for the census. So the house is packed! The kataluma, the guest room, is chock-full of guests, which means there was no room for Mary to give birth there. Instead, she had to use the lower room of the house at the bottom of which was a sunken area where the family’s animals would be stored at night. And this is where the manger comes into it: there would have been a receptacle for animal feed, and it was into this that Jesus was placed. And apparently this was unusual enough for the angels to use it as a sign for the shepherds that they might know they had found the right place.
“Finally, this helps to explain why in the gospel of Matthew, when the magi arrive on the scene, the text says they entered the house over which the star came to rest.”
When Emily paused for breath, Matt spoke. “Well, that makes a lot more sense.”
“Ooh, there’s more!” said Emily excitedly. “If you look at the latest version of the NIV, they have changed the text slightly: Mary ‘wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.’ Just goes to show that some of these deeply-held traditions take simply ages to be rooted out, but it can happen.”
Soon after, they went back to work. But Matt was left with a strong sense of his ignorance when it came to the Bible. Sunday school classes were only a distant memory – and if Emily was to be believed, quite often wrong in what they had taught, or at the very least misleading. His recent readings in the New Testament had left him with far more questions than answers. Surely there was something he could do to remedy that?