When we talk about how picture-perfect the first Christmas was, beautiful in the barn, the one piece that seems less-than-perfect to us is that there was no room at the inn for a very pregnant woman and her husband-to-be. What we don't seem to realize - indeed, we often read right past it because it is not in the biblical story at all - is that Joseph and Mary should not have been staying at in the inn at all.
That's not how Jewish society worked.
One of the core values of Jewish society was hospitality; another core value was family. Joseph and Mary were headed to Bethlehem because of the census that required them to go to their hometown. Mary being betrothed to Joseph, his hometown was her hometown - Bethlehem. And if Bethlehem was Joseph's hometown, we can know with almost absolute certainty that he had relatives still living there. Relatives that should have opened their home to him and his beloved. Especially because she was pregnant.
In those days, it just wasn't likely that an entire family would uproot itself from its hometown. It would have been extremely rare for not even a remnant to remain in the place of the family's history. And Jewish custom would have required whatever remnant there was to open every single inch of space in their home to any traveler who needed a place to stay, but even more so to family who was coming home. It would be the Griswold family Christmas on steroids - brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, everyone stuffed into every conceivable space inside the Jewish home and even some on the roof, which could be converted to living space as necessary (as demonstrated in other places in the Bible).
So the fact that Joseph and Mary are looking for space in an inn at all tells us that they were not welcome in the family home that Christmas. Joseph was not welcome among his kin; Mary was shunned by her in-laws.
And just like that, the first Christmas is starting to sound a whole lot more like ours, isn't it?
This is the story. This is the story that so many of us live this time of year, trying to balance our family relationships with the reality that even among our own flesh and blood, we are sometimes not welcome. Even among those with whom we share this strong bond of biology, there's no room for us. Some of us will go to homes this season where we will be not welcome or even shunned. It's a tremendously painful experience.
But this is the story of Christmas.
I'm not trying to be a downer here. It's not at all that Christmas is horrible and we should all just accept it and get through another year. What I'm trying to do is to emphasize that when Jesus came into the world 2,000 years ago, He came into the very same broken world in which we now celebrate His coming. He came in a flesh that knows exactly what our flesh is going through. He didn't come in postcard-perfect glory and silent nights and stillness and beauty; He came in noise and mess and blood and strife and the same kinds of things that we experience every day, even at Christmas.
We want so much for our Christmases to be beautiful. We want them to be the kinds of joyous celebrations that we can put on our own postcards next year. We want there to be auras of holy light and glistening golden straw and warm hugs and hearty laughter around a fireplace, but that's just not the way that Christmas works for most of us. That's not the experience we're having.
So it is important that we understand that that's not the experience that Joseph and Mary were having, either. That's not the experience that Jesus was having on that first Christmas. There is no reason that Jesus should have been born in a barn, no reason that Joseph and Mary should have been searching for room at the inn (which, by the way, should not have been full of Jewish persons, although there may have been a number of Romans who traveled for the census, as well). They should have been at home with Joseph's family, with aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and brothers and sisters and everyone.
But not everyone is welcome at home, even at Christmas. And that's hard. It hurts. It hurts with the deepest kind of pain there is, the relational pain of rejection. If that's you this year, I'm sorry. That's not the way that Christmas is supposed to be.
Thankfully, by the grace of God and the innkeeper, there's plenty of room in the barn.
And something beautiful is happening out here.