Stealing the Joy from the Gospel of Luke: Misadventures in the Christmas Story

A Gospel Story That Is Overflowing With Pure, Unbounded Joy

Todd Brewer / 12.12.19

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, and the Airbnb’s have just been banned by the municipal authorities. The snow begins to fall. They are jet-lagged from travel. The only accommodation they can find is some dingy, smelly, cold cave, 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.

At least, that was the story I grew up with, and there is some validity to it. But reading the Gospel of Luke, I find a far different story in detail and tone. My childhood nativity tale largely hinged upon a misunderstanding of first-century Israel and the Greek that Luke used to compose his Gospel. What does Luke’s story look like?

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.

Parts of the above tale require a little bit of inference to reconstruct, but not much. Forgive me for talking Greek, but the whole “there was no room for them in the inn [kataluma]” bit is better translated as “there was no room for them in the guest room” (Lk 2:7). Later, when Jesus is looking for a place in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, he asks the owner of the house for a “guest room” (kataluma) to eat with his disciples (Lk 22:11). By contrast, the Good Samaritan of the parable brought the injured man to an “inn” (pandoxeion). If Luke had meant to say that there was no room for Jesus in the inn (pandoxeion), he would have said so.

But why is there a manger in the house? Because every house had one on the ground floor for their animals. The whole born-in-a-cave business is from the Protevangelium of James. The idea of Jesus being clothed in tattered rags comes from the King James Version, though the word simply means “swaddled” (see Ezekiel 16:4, LXX). The presence of sheep in the nearby field (Lk 2:8) tell us that it isn’t winter, but closer to summer. And while we don’t know much (or anything) about Joseph’s backstory, it’s unreasonable to expect a son of David to be turned away by even his distant family.

All of which brings be back to Luke. If you want a dark and brooding birth narrative, this isn’t it. The entirety of his story is overflowing with pure, unbounded joy. Mary sings. Elizabeth sings. Zechariah sings. Angels sing. Shepherds sing. It’s almost an ancient Broadway musical. Everyone is amazed; everyone is joyful. Jesus is the child who “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” and “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Lk. 1:51-52). Yes, Jesus was poor, but he wasn’t abandoned. Yes, his birth was far from kingly. Even still, his birth meant the revolution was coming and everyone sang about how wonderful it was.

The incarnation of our Lord is a scandalous mystery of the faith, but adding pathos to the equation just isn’t the tone Luke was going for. The true Son of David was born in David’s city and this King would come to set the world right. His story does not end with the despair and desolation of the cross, but his ascension at the right hand of God (Lk 22:69). The joy of Luke’s birth narrative anticipates Jesus’ future enthronement and the humiliation of his enemies at his feet. The birth of this child turns the world upside down.

I’m not asking for much this Christmas, but please don’t steal my joy by over-exaggerating the gloominess of Jesus’ birth. It was not a somber occasion, darkened by the shadow of the cross. Luke’s birth narrative is nothing but joy. Perhaps it’s a little too much joy for our liking, but not for me. This world is sad enough sometimes, and the light of Christmas is a needed antidote to this veil of tears. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”

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3 responses to “Stealing the Joy from the Gospel of Luke: Misadventures in the Christmas Story”

  1. Darren Sombke says:

    Thank you!!! You almost perfectly encapsulated the “alternative” Christmas rendering of Crossways! and Kenneth Bailey. I’ve always tried to be a bit careful who I shared this information with, as people don’t usually like having their established holiday conceptions challenged. I really like how the author brings the traditional narrative into a joyous light. Well done!

  2. Brendan Doohan says:

    Great article! The author provides a close reading of Luke’s nativity story and displays it in a new light.

  3. John says:

    Wonderful! I too learned it first from Crossways and Bailey, Darren. Great thoughts about it not being so gloomy.

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