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This sermon was inspired by the New Testament scholarship of Jenny Read-Heimerdinger and this year's Christmas message from Pope Francis, forwarded to me by the Venerable Peggy Trendell-Jensen 

In the year 1223, 800 years ago, a young pastor travelled to a little mountain town in Italy to celebrate Christmas. When he arrived at the church, there were crowds of people lined up round the block. The pastor shook his head. Not unlike that first Christmas, there was no room at the inn! 

Well, being the innovative guy that he was, the pastor picked up the altar and walked out the door. He found a spot a ways up the mountain and set up the service outside instead. And, in order to make room for the Holy Family that night, he turned the area beneath the altar into a manger: a little wooden box for a crib, filled with straw; neighbours even bringing a live ox and donkey!

Francis—Saint Francis as he would later become known—is said to have staged the first nativity play. The legend goes that the crowds who witnessed the scene on the mountain that night even had a vision of the baby Jesus lying in the manger! The nativity or crèche wouldn’t become known as such until much later in history, but the story of that wondrous Christmas Eve would forever be linked to a “crib” from the latin, cripia meaning “feed stand”, and manger—where we get the French manger meaning “to eat” referring to the place where animals eat their hay. 

800 years later, churches around the world continue to celebrate the nativity, singing carols, which mark the arrival of the figures—human and animal alike—who came to worship the newborn king. One of my favourite scenes in the 2003 holiday classic, Love Actually, is with Emma Thompson’s character and her daughter. Her daughter’s just been cast in the school pageant. She says, “We’ve been given our parts in the nativity play!” 

“Oh!” Emma Thompson replies.

“And, I’m the lobster” the girl says. 


“Yeah,” the girl replies.

“In the nativity play?” 

“Yeah. First lobster,” she says.

“There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?”


800 years later and nativity plays continue to inform our reenactment of the birth of Jesus—lobsters and all. But, what if I were to tell you that the way we tell the Christmas story, namely the part about the stable and the innkeeper leaving poor Mary and Joseph to give birth in the barn around the back, what if I told you that none of this actually happened? At least not exactly.

I think you’ll be intrigued by what I’m about to say about the “real” origins of the Christmas story; it might even add to the magic of the season for you. Regardless, I promise you it doesn’t mean that you need to go home and throw away your nativities.  I plan on putting all six of mine out tonight—including one that’s made entirely of plastic and lit up by battery-operated candles!

So, if not the story that we’re used to telling, what really happened at the birth of Jesus?

There are four accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible—the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Only Matthew and Luke mention Jesus’ birth. With Matthew, it’s rather brief: Mary is engaged to Joseph; she finds out she’s pregnant; it’s all a bit of a scandal. An angel appears to Joseph and tells him not to worry: Mary will give birth to the Saviour and they are to name him Jesus.

That’s it. No inn. No innkeeper. No shepherds. The wise men will come and visit Jesus later, but it’s at the house where Mary and Joseph are staying, not the stable, and it’s when Jesus is a toddler, not when he’s a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.

Now, that’s Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus. In Luke’s telling, which we heard read this evening we do get a bit more of the traditional nativity story. We hear plainly that Mary gave birth to Jesus, wrapped him in cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn. We hear about these shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks, and how they are told to go and find this baby lying in a manger. 

The word that is typically translated “inn” in our Bibles comes from a word that is probably better translated as “guest room”, as in the place where grandma and grandpa stay when they come for Christmas; or even “dining room”, as in the place you might host friends for a meal. What this means is that the place where Mary and Joseph sought to give birth was more likely the guest room of a relative’s home than a motel along the #1; more likely the very room where Jesus would later gather his disciples, saying, “this is my body broken for you; this is my blood given for you.” 

Which is to say, Jesus’ birth is more so about a couple coming home for the holidays and finding, as we all have, I’m sure, that auntie and uncle are already in the spare room, dad’s got a bad back so he has the guest bed this year, and there are some sleeping bags set up for the kids in the TV room downstairs. 

This leaves us, of course, with the small issue of Jesus being laid in a manger after Mary had given birth to him. To better understand where this manger was, we need to first understand Palestinian homes in Jesus’ time. While we might conjure up images of a manger in a barn some distance from the house, the animals in Jesus’ time were in fact kept inside the home on the ground floor, below where the family slept and ate. This was to keep the animals safe at night, but as well to keep the house heated. And, in the event of a family member going into labour, the place where the animals were made the most sense for the women and midwives to assist with the birth, because the space was warm and could easily be cleaned the following day. 

What’s more, the manger—the trough where the animals ate their hay—would have provided a comfortable place to lay the newborn baby especially amidst a crowded, multigenerational home where the guest room was already occupied. While laying a baby in a bed of straw with the barn animals is unthinkable in our 21st century imaginations, this was entirely normal—commonplace, even, for a first century family. 

So, we might ask ourselves, as we pause this Christmas Eve, why is it that we’re drawn to traditional nativity scenes? Why is it that we’ve been pulling together the pieces of the Christmas story into one single tableau for 800 years? Perhaps it’s our desire to hold on to some morsel of the magic that shone bright that night? The promise of a world where war was no more; where evil rulers would be cast down and the poor lifted up; a world where hungry bellies would be filled and every tear wiped away.

There is something special about the story of the Holy Family turned away by the cold-hearted innkeeper only to be greeted by shepherds and angels and wise men instead.

There’s magic also in the story of a saviour who was born in the midst of crowded, everyday, family life, the story of a saviour who makes himself known in our crowded, everyday lives and the lives of all people around the world, where perhaps there isn’t any more room or well-being or humanity to spare and if this Saviour is going to be born, well, he’ll have to be brought into the world with what’s on hand. And, do you know, the beauty of the Christmas story is that God says, “That's enough. That’s more than enough.” Amen.