One of the most famous lines of the Christmas story describes baby Jesus being placed in a manger, “because there was no room in the inn.”
When Luke mentions an inn in Luke 2:7, we shouldn’t picture something like a modern-day Holiday Inn or Travelodge, places where you can enjoy a continental breakfast and the swimming pool. Back then there was something like our hotels, but probably not in Bethlehem. What would be the use? This town wasn’t large, and it didn’t stand on any major roads.
This “inn” probably wasn’t a business enterprise at all. Rather, it was probably little more than a guest house. Homeowners in small towns would sometimes make available a room for travelers if they were passing through. The travelers usually had to provide their own bedding and supply their own food, while the host might give fodder for the animals and a fire for cooking. These were typically humble accommodations.
Sometimes we picture Joseph and Mary on a frantic search for a place to stay on Christmas Eve. That’s how the story often gets told: they had just arrived in Bethlehem, Mary was suddenly going into labour, and they were still looking for a suitable room. But all they find are flickering neon signs: No Vacancy. Which would be a stressful situation!
In the usual retelling of the story, the drama is built up by the presence of a heartless innkeeper. It has been said that he took one look at these dusty Galileans and he slammed the door on them, sent them on their way. He didn’t want a baby being delivered in the ensuite!
Others say that Joseph and Mary were turned away because the inn was full on account of the imperial census, or maybe full of Roman soldiers on leave.
What Luke actually says is a lot simpler. Instead of a frantic last minute search, Joseph and Mary were probably in Bethlehem for some weeks already before Jesus’s birth. Verse 6 says, “while they were there, the days were completed for [Mary] to be delivered.” They had been in town for a while, but they had not been able to find a place to stay while they waited for the birth. The local guest house was full, and beyond that, the pickings were slim.
Joseph and Mary have to find something else. Verse 7 mentions a manger, so they were in a place that was also occupied by livestock. It is certain, anyway, that animals were nearby. According to one old tradition, Jesus was born just outside Bethlehem in a cave, because caves were often used as stables for animals. But mangers were often outdoors as well, set up in a pen or courtyard; it’s possible then, that Jesus was also born in the open air, under the stars.
Another possibility—the most likely, I think—is that Joseph and Mary found a place not in the village guesthouse, but with some other local family. Many homes would have the animals dwelling under the same roof as the people. The livestock might be on the lower level of the house, or they would be in a shed connected to the house.
However it looked exactly, this scene continues the theme that Luke has been developing from the start of his Gospel: the Saviour of the world enters this life in a most lowly way. He comes in a way that would’ve been shameful to anyone with status or position. There was no luxury and no ease for this Son of David! He should’ve been born in a royal palace, not a roadside shack. He wasn’t even at home.
And being shut out of comfortable lodging like this was just the beginning. Later we’ll hear Jesus say, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). In life, Jesus had nothing to his name. No money, no creature comforts, and no place of rest. He spent his ministry wandering the countryside, sleeping in boats and staying in the wilderness.
He couldn’t even go to his hometown, Nazareth. Remember how He was once chased away by the people He grew up with because they didn’t like what He was saying. Truly, Jesus had “nowhere to lay his head,” no place to call home. Rejected by men, and despised by his people. Shut out, when He should’ve been welcomed.
And why? Why accept all this poor treatment when He clearly deserved far better? If this happened to us, we would probably start grumbling about our rights. But Jesus accepted this shame because He wasn’t on earth to seek his own benefit. He was always seeking ours!
Jesus became utterly poor, in order to make us rich with salvation.
Jesus chose to be rejected, so that we would always be welcome.
Jesus was willing to be homeless to secure our place in the Father’s house!