Away In A Manger

“I hate being out on the roads like this.”

Joe’s fiance, Mary, grunted a halfhearted reply. He struggled to keep his focus and attention on the slick road as the heavy snowfall made visibility steadily worse and the roads more and more dangerous. She, in turn, seemed to ignore the roads as she drifted ever closer to sleep in the passenger seat next to him. Joe would much rather the two of them be snuggled warm and cozy by the fireplace back home. But he has to go where the work takes him. He has to go when it sends him there. Joe owns his own business as a handyman. He can fix problems of a variety of types and he charges a lot less than some big-city specialist. Unfortunately, work seems to be busiest during the early months of winter.

Even more, his young fiance insists on coming out with him as often as possible. He doesn’t blame her. She just doesn’t want to be alone. Both Joe and Mary are small-town people who were raised in very traditional families. Mary is more than eight months pregnant and their wedding is still three months away. Those two facts do not sit well with small-town conservative values.

Mary’s family does not much like Joe. Joe’s family does not much like Mary. It would be even worse if they found out that the baby isn’t his. At least, it isn’t his biologically. Joe has made a commitment before God and Mary to raise the boy as his own. That means this is one secret that will never pass his lips.

Many of Mary’s so-called friends have completely abandoned her. Many of the ones who hadn’t still seem to have an unspoken rebuke right on the tip of their tongues. Mary’s aunt Liz and her uncle Zach have opened up their home to help the young couple escape the eyes and the gossip they were facing at home. These relatives are the only ones to accept the situation with no reservations, but now Liz has a newborn baby of her own to care for. So Joe and Mary have been doing their best to give the older couple some space.

That’s why Joe has a very pregnant Mary sitting in his passenger seat as he drives through the winter snow. He is heading on this dark night to some random bakery that needs it’s furnace fixed before their business starts tomorrow morning. Or is it this morning? What time is it anyway?

Suddenly, a hand reaches out and grabs his arm. Mary, who moments before was practically asleep, is now sitting up with eyes as big as saucers.

“Joe… Joe… it’s time!”

“Now?”

“Yes, right now!”

Joe pulls over to the side of the road as quickly as he safely can. Perhaps he is a bit quicker than is safe for these slick wintery roads.

“Okay… think… we got this. We can do this.”

Joe fumbles open his phone and he pulls out google maps.

“Alright, the nearest hospital is about an hour and a half back in the other direction. That’s in good weather.”

Joe looks at a panicked Mary who has one hand on the dash and the other with a stranglehold on the seatbelt.

“No time. Breathe, honey, breathe. OK… umm… hotels… hotels… What? This town only has one hotel? How can someplace calling itself the bread capital of Judea only have one hotel?”

“Who cares? Just go,” Mary breaks into his panicked rambling. “Just go!”

Joe pulls back into traffic while setting up the directions on his phone.

Less than ten minutes later they were pulling into an inn called “The Barracks”. Mary’s second contraction hadn’t started yet when they parked. She shooed her anxious husband away to go book a room.

As Joe rushed across the parking space he noticed that there seemed to be an awful lot of cars here. He opened the front door and was immediately hit by the noise. This place was loud. Apparently, the inn was a converted old army barracks and there were no walls. There were just curtains separating one bed from the next. Apparently, the local high school was hosting some competition and the place was full of visiting school kids.

When Joe rushed up to the front desk, an older lady, probably mid-fifties, gave him a sympathetic look.

“I know you’d probably hate to drive any further in this weather, but you might be better off heading to the Econo Lodge. It’s about a thirty-minute drive straight ahead on these roads tonight.”

Joe shook his head. “No choice. No time. My wife is in labor.”

The lady’s head picked up at this. She turned grabbed for her coat. At the same time, she called back, “Tim, clean up the shed. We’re giving it up for the night.”

The front desk lady, Lorna, had her coat on and was out the door before Tim’s questioning reply from somewhere in the back could be heard. Together, she and Joe trudged back out into the snow to help bring Mary inside. Connected to the old army barracks was a maintenance shed. It doubled as a break room and rest area for employees. It wasn’t uncommon during winter for Tim and Lorna to sleep there instead of risking the fifteen-minute drive back home that ended with a steep climb on an all too often unplowed road.

Tonight they stayed by Joe and Mary’s side for the eleven hours of labor that ended shortly before sunrise. Along with them, one of the visiting school chaperones with Red Cross First Responder training assisted. When baby J was finally born, the other three went to grab some much-needed sleep from bunks inside the barracks. This left Joe, Mary, and her baby with a brief spell of weary peace. Joe looked around at his “lodgings” and smiled at Mary.

“Well, now he will be able to truly say that he was born in a barn.”

 

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I don’t know about you, but when I think of Christmas songs, Away in a Manger is almost certainly one of the first ones to come to mind. Although it isn’t one of my favorites, certainly no collections of Christmas songs would be complete without it. It is also one of the Christmas songs I most love to complain about. I know Martin Luther supposedly wrote the lyrics to it as a means of teaching his children the Christmas story. For some reason despite the evidence to back this claim, I remain skeptical.

When I imagine Away in a Manger being written, I picture a guy who knows absolutely nothing about the Christmas story. The future author is placed in front of some idyllic nativity set and told this scene is all he really needs to know about Christmas. So he gathers a little information about who each person or thing is in that nativity set. Then our author starts putting words to paper without ever bothering to consult Matthew or Luke. I know this is not how or why the song was written but this is how I like to pretend it happened.

I guess in a way my feelings about this song are about the same as the song’s feelings about the Christmas story. I know this is not how it really happened, but this is how we like to sing that it happened. I’m not being fair. There really isn’t much to the song and it is definitely a kid’s poem. As far as kid’s poems go, it is worlds better than Rock-a-bye-baby. As soon as a child grows old enough to understand what is being said, that one is sure to give them nightmares. Ring around the Rosie? Great. Let’s sing a song about the bubonic plague. Come on kids, it’ll be fun!

Away in a manger… Was Jesus really born in a cave after being barred from the local hotels? How have you been told the story? I have seen plenty of Christmas pageants in the forty(ish) Christmases I have been able to celebrate. For a while there it seemed like I was being dragged to at least two or three pageants a year. As a kid had even taken part in more than my fair share. Normally I played the part of Joseph or one of the wise guys. One role I don’t think I have ever played, but which is always a part of the play is that of the villainous innkeeper. The greedy heartless businessman cares not one whit for Mary’s huge belly and obvious contractions. “No room! There’s a barn in the back. I’d rather you do your screaming in there than out here in my yard where the paying customers might take notice. Hurry up. Get out of here!”

Did you know there is no innkeeper in the true Christmas story? The guy we like to shake our heads at as our children play their parts doesn’t even exist. If you don’t believe me, read it for yourself. What is worse, having them give birth in the manger was not an act of cruelty but rather an act of kindness. We have our modern conception of what that inn was and the wrong definition for the word room. Luke isn’t talking about a room like a living room, a bedroom, or a hotel room. “Here’s your key sir, you are on the third floor to the left, room 312.” No. The story I shared above gives us a better picture of the inn and manger than the myth we are being fed every winter.

While in many other ways I have taken artistic license, it does give a much truer picture to what really would have been happening that night in Bethlehem. To illustrate the manger and the inn I’d also like to point to two other Bible stories: Jephthah’s daughter and the Last Supper. Before entering battle, Jephthah promised God that he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house. Obviously, he wasn’t expecting that to be a person. Definitely not his daughter. No. Many homes in this region would have had what we would consider an attached garage for their animals. Jephthah was expecting an animal to exit from his house. Joseph was given the same such garage for his wife and child to come that Jephthah had. Given the time of night and year that “garage” almost certainly would have been empty.

Many larger houses during Jesus’ time also would have had a guest room upstairs. This would have been a single large upper room that would have been about the same size as the entire house below. The room would have served as guest lodgings for people coming to the Jewish celebrations in Jerusalem. Just think of the room Jesus and his disciples stayed in for the Last Supper. This was an upper room that was able to accommodate at least thirteen (probably more) people for a Jewish ritual meal. If you are reading this in a typical American home, then you can picture a room probably about twice the size of your living room.

There were probably many such rooms in various homes in Bethlehem that night but they also would all have likely held quite a few stinky, smelly, noisy, travelers. When Luke says there was no room in the inn. He wasn’t saying every room was booked. He was saying there was no appropriate, adequate, or suitable place for a woman in labor to give birth. The owner of the home was giving Jesus the best he had to offer. He doesn’t even get a mention in the recorded story and has been misunderstood by nearly all from that time to this. Even still he did the best thing he could have in that situation. That first Christmas, he made room for Jesus. This Christmas, have you?

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