a messy first Christmas

One of my favorite things right now is dwelling in the messiness of the first Christmas.

Maybe it’s because I’m mama to a toddler this year. Christmas used to be ornately crafted: glass ornaments delicately arranged, gifts carefully slipped under the branches, carols in eight-part harmony. Now my living room floor is covered in scattered toys and half-full sippy cups, and the tree is behind a playpen fence to guard from exploring fingers.

In painting that first Christmas, the Renaissance and Victorian master artists gave us a reverent scene: Mary and Joseph kneeling with humble astonishment, the manger’s straw almost invisible in the holy glow of the newborn Savior. Only animals for company in this inn’s stable, but they each meekly bow their head, all creation recognizing the birth of its king. The shepherds arrive with woolly lambs in their arms and around their shoulders, calling to mind Jesus as the lamb of God.

I would not call this a lie — I only suspect it might not hold the whole truth.

For centuries the English versions of Luke’s story have said there was “no place in the inn” (Luke 2:7). But the original Greek of the gospel has no mention of an inn. The word is katalumati, the same place that Jesus will seek for his last supper with his disciples. A katalumati is not an inn, or a hostel, or a stable, but a guest room.

No guest room for them. In Joseph’s hometown.

That changes things a bit, doesn’t it? Joseph might not have been running from Motel 6 to Marriott, frantically looking for a room for his donkey-riding fiancee in sudden labor. Jesus’ parents-to-be might have looked more like two teenage kids slinking home with their heads down, like the Prodigal Son their own son will someday craft into a parable, knowing they have no place and hoping for one anyway. Joseph’s return to his hometown had no celebration. It was a scandal. Had he told people already about the angels’ messages, the promise that the child was from the Holy Spirit? Or did he, perhaps wisely, know the truth would be rejected far more than the assumption: he and Mary were pregnant before they were married.

Scholars say the population of Bethlehem at Jesus’ birth was under 1,000, maybe as low as 300. It would have been easy for the whole village to know the scandal of a hometown boy who’d gotten his fiancee pregnant — or whose fiancee had stepped out on him and yet he’d stayed with her anyway. Perhaps they had no place to stay because few homes, maybe not even family, would open their doors for such a scandal.

Or perhaps there truly was no guest room in the whole of Bethlehem. Guest rooms, extra lodging spaces beyond where the whole family slept in one bed, were usually found in wealthier homes, and Bethlehem was small and poor. Perhaps the whole village had not a single guest room built on any home, even before the census was declared and everyone went to their own hometown to register.

And, even if there were one guest room in the whole village, they were often a second-story accommodation, accessible by a ladder. If you’ve ever known someone nine months pregnant, you might know that a ladder is not their most desired mode of ascension.

Mary and Joseph might have been staying in Bethlehem for days, even weeks, before the labor began. Someone had taken pity on them and let them stay in their little one-room house. These weary travelers sleep tucked in beside the animals, who were usually brought indoors and kept in a lowered part of the ground floor for warmth and protection overnight. Joseph, a career carpenter, fixes their wooden door and patches up the fence. Mary and the woman of the house cook together and share stories. The children of the house, a gaggle of dark-haired and dark-eyed Palestinian faces, tell everyone in the town everything about their guests: how the woman named Mary is from Nazareth and how her cousin Elizabeth is married to the priest Zechariah and how the donkey carried all their things on their journey.

Perhaps this is how the story finally gets around. Maybe Mary and Joseph are feeling the baby’s tumbling kicks within her stomach as they settle down to sleep, and these almost-parents whisper together about the angels’ promises. Maybe the middle child, the one who doesn’t sleep through the night like the oldest but can talk a Roman mile a minute more than the youngest, hears their murmurs and listens, raptured. He tells his siblings. And then everyone else. 

There are surely chuckles from the village at his tale; aren’t children ever so imaginative? And yet. Maybe there are one or two believers, or at least those curious enough to wonder. Joseph, they nod. Always a righteous man, even as a boy. Named for the child of Jacob-Israel whose dreams delivered his family from disaster. Hmm, says someone. Hmm, agrees another.

Mary is the one who knows. It is not always mothers who know, but there is a mystery we carry when for nine months we have never been alone, and we are often the first to know. She can feel it, that night that will come to be a night the whole world knows: something has changed. Immanuel, God-with-us, is not moving the same way. The kicks are — different. The baby is — different, somehow.

She tells Joseph.

He tells the mother of the house.

But before she can even turn to speak, the mother sees her middle child, he who is not first or last but always gets the first and the final word in, bolting out of the yard towards the midwife’s house.

When he returns, midwife in tow, the mother of the house shoos her husband outside, because birthing is not his business. But Joseph asks to stay — insists, maybe. I wonder if the women are suspicious of him. Do they look askance at him? Do they whisper? He may have taken advantage of his fiancee. And yet the love between him and Mary is palpable. Even before the Savior of the world is born, there is glory in this holy family of two. The women relax.

Joseph does not. This is the first birth he’s ever attended. I think it was the last, too. The cries, the straining muscles, the tearing skin — birth is not an easy affair, for anyone to do or watch, but especially for one who loves another so deeply they nearly feel their pain. I can tell you this, having watched my wife labor for 40 hours. I think we’d all like to believe that Mary’s birth-giving was miraculously easy, the kind every pregnant person dreams of when we imagine “natural labor,” with a twisted towel gripped in our hands and then one big push. I can tell you that this is not usually the case, and I am willing to imagine Joseph would tell you it wasn’t.

The house is crowded: Mary, Joseph, midwife, mother of the house. Goat bleating, chickens furious at being awakened. The eldest daughter, too, doing what eldest daughters have, perhaps, always done: everything that needed doing. Send the curious younger children outside to their father, push the chickens aside, heap up the hearth. Sling the heavy iron pot closer to the coals and add more water. Make hot compresses to ease muscles. Brew tea. Whatever the midwife asks for, the eldest daughter does. Her mother smiles with pride, and winces too, knowing that the cries of childbirth are not many years away from her own child’s mouth. 

Mary’s screams and gasps are eventually split by a new sound — the voice of God, master of the universe, crying out for air. The one who put breath in the earth-body of Adam takes their own first human breath. “No crying he makes” is silly in its sweetness; we want a newborn baby to cry and show their lungs are clear. The first thing we do in our earthly existence is ask for help. (Too many of us are taught, over the years, to make it the last thing we ever try.) There’s blood and muck and placenta and vernix caseosa, the waxy substance babies are often covered in to protect their tender skin. There’s rapidly changed out sheets and blankets, and clean scraps of fabric dipped in boiled water to wipe baby and mother clean. 

Men didn’t usually attend births, but I think Joseph did. I wonder if he, unlike most fathers before him, cut the umbilical cord, and wrapped the final bands of cloth. Legs still bent from his uterine home, arms now tucked and swaddled close to his chest, the baby nuzzles into his earthly father’s chest.

Then another little cry. Not a labor pain, not a newborn’s yell — a cry Joseph and Mary will come to know, and sigh, and chuckle at — the cry of hunger. But Joseph doesn’t recognize it yet, and so the mother of the house rolls her eyes at this new father, and scoops the Savior of the universe from his arms and hands him to Mary, she who is glowing and still breathing hard. And the Almighty, who has never wanted for anything, drinks from his mother’s breast.

I wonder if there was a wet nurse, or someone like her. New mothers have relied on other nursing women in all sorts of cultures — someone to provide if mom’s milk hasn’t come in yet, or baby struggles to latch. Maybe she came with the midwife, there with herbs and teas to work the witchery of labor and delivery. Maybe this is why so many artists put the holy family in a secluded stable; it’s too dangerous to reveal how much the Word incarnate needed women to survive that first long night, and so many nights after, right up to the bitter end, and three days later the glorious morning.

But we’re not there yet. Here it is night, and the Messiah is only a sated babe, tucked into the half-wall of stone where a feed trough has been cut for the animals at night. The goat would be annoyed by this, were it not already crowded to the far wall by a dozen new faces pushing in. The father of the house is pushed inside surrounded by his overexcited family. He will be the first of many fathers to find Christmas morning coming a few hours before the dawn and heralded not by a chorus of angels but by the unconstrained joy of children. He is sleepy, but amused. He shakes Joseph’s hand.

But the children and father are not alone in their entry. A few other villagers peer in, their head coverings barely tugged on as they blink bleary eyes awake. With them are shepherds, followed by at least one village mother deeply annoyed by the early morning knock at her door by neighbors asking which house, was it, again, that had the pregnant lady staying in it, and was the baby born yet, and by chance did they lay him in a feed trough, because angels —

Angels, she grumbles to herself, and shakes her head in disbelief that someone woke her with such a tale, before her eyes widen at the sight of a babe swaddled and sleeping among straw.

And the shepherds tell their story, “everything that had been made known to them.” Joseph is speechless, and Mary stares down at the child with stars in his sleepy eyes, and the goat is hungry but patient and the midwife is both wise and awestruck, and everyone in the packed house wonders at what has taken place, which the Lord has made known to them.

So many artists and stores give us serene and solitary nativity scenes, but I’m convinced by history and Scripture that it was a packed house, noisy, messy, human, with children shouting and adults surprised once again by ancient mystery and something delicious in a stew pot and someone a bit grumpy about it all. Maybe I only believe this because that’s what Christmas is, for me, these days: family and friends and maybe a helpful stranger or two, joined by birth or geography or happenstance, all laughing and shouting over each other with joy, while the children race around leaving playful destruction in their wake. 

But I think there’s some good theology in a messy Christmas. God, appearing among us, did not hold us at arm’s length. God in Jesus was not a thundering voice or a flame too bright to look at for long. God came as a baby, first one cell and then two and then eight and thirty-two and thousands, who needed the safety of Mary’s womb to grow eyes and ears and hands and feet. God who has always loved us grew, in that sweet darkness of womb, a heart. 

And God arrived not in a temple or a palace but a home, where all of us begin, not just with attendant ox and sheep but with a midwife firmly calling out instructions and a terrified first-time father and inquisitive children who cannot be kept from peeking in windows to see what happens next. 

And God cried, and nursed, and slept, and had dirty diapers, and learned to walk across a carpenter’s shop, and drank well water from handmade clay cups, and stuttered through his first word, and left toys on the floor for his earthly father to stub a toe on. 

All of that is real, and so, I think, is a messy Christmas: as real as us, as real as each of us, as real as God reaching for us not from far away or across the future but close as a babe in arms reaching up to touch our face.