Every Christmas pageant features the Innkeeper. He is the one who, when Joseph and Mary come knocking, opens the door a crack and cries, “No room!”
In fact, there never was an “inn” at Bethlehem. All the archaeological evidence suggests that Bethlehem was a one-stoplight town, not nearly large enough to have a Motel 6. But more to the point, Luke uses the word kataluma, which is the same word he uses to describe the room where Jesus shared his Last Supper with his disciples—the guest room of a house. (When Luke means “inn,” as he does in the story of the Good Samaritan, he uses the word pandeion.)
Which means, when Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem they knocked on the door of a relative. But because thousands were traveling for registration at the census, there was no room in the kataluma, no room in the guest room. So Joseph and Mary ended up in the room at the back of the house where the family kept their prized animals.
For me, this completely changes the Christmas story: it’s about family.
For most of us, Christmas comes down to family. It’s about who gets the guest room and who gets the crappy bed in the basement. Even in very good families, it’s about sibling rivalry and old tapes of family conflict playing on an endless loop in the background. It’s red vs. blue, and how to get a Christmas dinner on the table that doesn’t offend the vegans or turn off the paleos. And if the Bethlehem saga is any indication, Christ is not waiting to be born in something better.
The real Christmas story pronounces a blanket blessing on all gathered families. Mary and Joseph shunted into the livestock quarters means: it was ever thus! We aren’t ever, ever going to have a “perfect” Christmas when the lions and the lambs of the family make nice together until the Second Coming. In the meantime, Jesus is born in the messiest room of the house, and our task is to see Christ there. In our family room.