Sermon: The first family Christmas

Note from CM: We are on the road for a few days, so no Sunday sermon for this post. Here is the sermon I preached on Christmas Eve, giving a different perspective on what that first Christmas might have been like.

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Sermon: Christmas Eve 2019
The first family Christmas

The Lord be with you.

I read a very interesting article by Todd Brewer at Mockingbird recently that challenged some of our common understandings of the Christmas story as the Gospel tells it here in Luke, chapter two. I’m still thinking about it, but I thought I’d share it with you tonight, because I think, if it’s accurate, it has some relevance to our own Christmas celebrations.

In the article, Brewer describes what I think is a fairly common understanding of the Christmas story.

Mary, about to give birth, treks down with Joseph to the backwater town of Bethlehem to fulfill Caesar’s census decree. They arrive at Joseph’s hometown and are greeted by “no vacancy” signs at all hotels…. The snow begins to fall. They are jet-lagged from travel. The only accommodation they can find is some dingy, smelly, cold cave [or maybe it’s a stable], full of animals. The soon-to-be parents are alone as Mary goes into labor and Joseph stands helplessly by. Finally, the moment comes and Jesus is wrapped in tattered clothes as he is placed in a feeding trough, an unassuming birthplace more fitting for a lamb than a King. The Son of God comes into the world just as he left it: poor, destitute, and rejected by those he came to save.

The problem, as the author says, is that we have misunderstood what it means when the Gospel says, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

I don’t know about you, but when I think of the word “inn” I imagine a Holiday Inn, a Hampton Inn, or a Fairfield Inn – a hotel — or maybe some local bed & breakfast that calls itself an inn.

However, if you read the New International Version translation, which gives a more literal sense of what the word meant in that culture, a whole new picture emerges. It reads “and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”

The author explains that Joseph and Mary likely had relatives in Bethlehem, and that the couple would have stayed in one of their homes. Now the homes in those days usually had space for the animals as a part of the house and not in a separate facility. The animals’ quarters may have been on the ground floor with the family living space above or they may have been attached to the house in some other way. At any rate, it wasn’t like the farms many of you have or see in our area, where the house is for people and the barn or the stables are for the animals. People and animals lived close together in the same dwelling. There are still many parts of the world where this is the arrangement.

When it says that Joseph and Mary could find no room in that setting, it means that the house was so crowded with relatives that all the guest rooms were taken, all the spare beds were being slept in. The family members that had gathered there in Bethlehem were so numerous that they had overflowed into the part of the house that was occupied by the animals.

What this means, if this is accurate, is that we have far too few pieces in our Nativity sets!

Joseph and Mary weren’t alone in Bethlehem, they were likely surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins and all manner of distant relatives. The birth of Jesus didn’t take place on a “silent night,” it happened in the midst of a crowded home full of noise and conversation and anticipation and support. Jesus was born in the midst of a joyful gathering of loving and excited kin.

Maybe the birth of Jesus was more like the following description.

Mary, about to give birth, treks down with Joseph to the royal town of Bethlehem to fulfill Caesar’s census decree. They arrive at Joseph’s hometown and are greeted by … hoards of his second cousins, great-aunts and -uncles, and distant relatives. The whole gang is in town, and together they trade travel stories while quietly cursing Caesar’s ridiculous decree. Tired from the journey and the hot sun, Mary goes into labor surrounded by extended family and the local midwife. Finally, the moment comes and Jesus is swaddled as he is placed in the living room feeding trough because the guest room was already full of out-of-town guests. The Son of God comes into the world and everyone rejoices in song at the birth of the newest addition to the family.

You may not know this, but my wife Gail gave birth to three of our children at home. We had other kids running around, a doctor and a midwife who came to help, friends we had asked to be there, other family members who had come in from out of town to either witness the event or support us afterward. We weren’t tucked away in a hospital room with only the medical staff present. It was a family occasion, a time we wanted to share with others, a time of joy and rejoicing.

So, if what this author describes is a more realistic setting for Jesus’ birth, our Savior was born in the same kind of context. The angels weren’t the only ones singing that night. The shepherds weren’t the only ones running with excitement to see the baby and spread the news. Mary and Joseph were surrounded by a large, extended family who rejoiced with them when the baby Jesus was born. It may have been a quiet birth from the standpoint that the world outside took little notice, but in a house with its attached animal quarters in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary’s relatives were having a Christmas party. The first Christmas family gathering.

I say all this to encourage you to enjoy this Christmas with your family and friends. I encourage you to sing. I encourage you to laugh, to feast, to tell stories, play games, and make it a family get-together to remember.

It seems as though that’s exactly what the first Christmas may have been like — an occasion for family and friends to come together and make merry over the good news that a baby has been born to bring us joy forever.

A very merry Christmas to you all. Amen.

17 thoughts on “Sermon: The first family Christmas

  1. Yes, the simultaneity of the Orthodox Nativity icon sounds right to me. It’s not a chronological, sequential representation, but symbolic and religious — the pieces fit together in a meaningful pattern of the Incarnation and its immediate aftermath. And it’s messy, just like the world Christ was born into, which gives it realism, regardless of chronological sequence.


  2. Time to throw out the stable scenes altogether (and rework the church Christmas program), replacing the quiet animals with noisy relatives.



  3. Yes, this is the wonderful result of further linguistic study. My understanding is that there are many caves in the Bethlehem area, and that people built their houses next to them so they could use the caves for storage and keeping their animals.

    The traditional Orthodox icon of the Nativity depicts all the things that happened, all at once: angels, shepherds, wise guys on their way (on horses, not camels), Joseph thinking about all that has happened (wrestling still?), AND other women besides Mary washing and dressing the Child. All of this surrounds the manger, set in a cave (reminiscent of Christ’s grave), in which the swaddled child is lying (reminiscent of his coming grave-clothes), along with his Mother on her own bed, with an ox and ass looking on, recognizing their Master (Is 1.3). Yes, we know the Magi came later, but in portraying them in the icon together with the rest of the Christmas happenings, we’re reminded that they’re the “first fruits” of the Gentiles coming to worship the One True God.



  4. Yes. The Greek word for ‘guest room’ is ‘kataluma’, the same word as ‘upper room’ (Mark 14:14, Luke 22:11). Luke, telling about the Good Samaritan, uses a different Greek word for ‘inn’ – ‘pandocheion’. Time to throw out the stable scenes altogether (and rework the church Christmas program), replacing the quiet animals with noisy relatives.


  5. I also think alternative interpretations add to the richness and spiritual vitality of the texts, HUG. This is a place where Christians need to learn from Judaism. Besides the richness of alternative interpretations rather than a univocal interpretation, embrace of this interpretative practice would contribute to a more ecumenical spirit among the many different Christian denominations and sects, allowing each to be enriched and spiritually enlarged by the others rather than in competition to nail down the “one true meaning” of texts.


  6. Just a few miles from where we live, a family does their annual Laurel Avenue Lights show, in Lititz PA, throughout most of December. You pull up alongside the house, tune into a radio frequency on your FM dial that is announced by a sign in the driveway, and the 25 minute light show is synchronized to a playlist of Christmas music, with announcements before and after the show. Then it repeats, throughout the evening. We went there last night. Spectacular. And the neighbors must be very tolerant.


  7. That long?

    But seriously, I speak with some people who head into family gatherings with a sigh and deep breath in anticipation of how poorly they expect things to go. Others seem delighted at the prospect of family gatherings at the holidays, and still others have mixed feelings. But there is a world of difference between the normal human relational friction that can accrue extra negative energy from years and decades of unpleasant family narratives that remain unresolved and stagnant, and real, deep dysfunction, on the part of a few or many members of a family, that make gatherings hellish, or impossible, for some.


  8. I heard a piece the other day that gave this factoid (I don’t know how they came up with it). The average time it takes for a person to become disenchanted with his/her family at a holiday gathering = 34.5 minutes.


  9. I have a neighbor who ‘celebrates’ Christmas with yard displays . . . . lit reindeer, a decorated tree, beautiful lights . . .

    one Advent Season, Forster was building a carport to the side of his house and hammering away, and I looked over and said ‘you’ve already got the reindeer and the trees lit up, you didn’t have to go and build a stable’ 🙂


  10. Makes a lot more sense than the traditional version.

    In Judaism, there is a lot more tolerance for alternative interpretations; the attitude is that “Rabbi X reads the narrative this way, Rabbi Y reads the same passages this way, Rabbi Z reads it still another way…” each looking from a different perspective and seeing another meaning, getting a different insight from the same passages. Gives DEPTH to the Holy Book; we lose a lot when we have only THE One Plain Reading of SCRIPTURE(TM) and anything else is HERESY.


  11. How beautifully a Christmas tree symbolizes the light of Christ born into a world of darkness. Because of Christ’s Incarnation, I’m able to face and stand against the darkness in myself, which is the same as the darkness that surrounds me. Because of the Light that has come into the world, and that cannot be extinguished, I’m never alone in the darkness. Thanks be to God


  12. for those in prisons and in ‘camps’ and for those who ‘wait’ . . . let that waiting be of joyful hope, yes, but let’s not take from the poor and the lonely and the suffering of incarcerated little ones, ‘The Story’ as it was written . . . there will always be a sense of ‘the Holy’ in that ‘cave/stable’ with the Star overhead, and the animals lowing in lullaby and the abiding presence of shepherds . . . it was they who heard the rallying cry of the ‘strata’ of angels,

    but the scene was, is, one of a quiet joy expressed in holy peace:


  13. Despite having grown up in a reasonably large Italian-American family that practiced gathering and visiting at Christmas to celebrate the holiday, I can’t say that I ever truly experienced the wonderfulness of a truly festive family Christmas. Because of extreme family dysfunction, the authentic festivity of the Christmas season never really made itself felt to me. But despite my personal experience, there is plenty of reason to believe that many others truly experience the blessing of such a Christmas, and no reason to believe that Jesus’ family didn’t experience such blessing themselves at his birth, as the post points out.

    But, if at Christmas you feel and are alone, alienated and/or far away from family and friends for whatever reason, know that Jesus came into the world for you, that he loves you equally and without condition, and that you are by no means least though you may be alone. I pray that you may find cheerful human companionship in this season; but however that may be with you, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and an awareness of Christ’s presence with you at this time and throughout the coming year.


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