Our traditional Nativity scenes show the Holy Family in a drafty, often three-sided stable, in some desolate location. While scholars debate if Jesus was really born in Bethlehem and in which Bethlehem—there are two: the traditional birthplace south of Jerusalem or northwest of Nazareth in Galilee—it’s the “stable” that is probably not accurate.
Luke doesn’t tell us they were in a stable. He simply says that Jesus was placed in a manger. People extrapolated that a manger had to be in a stable, but that’s not necessarily the case. In the Middle East, even today, sometimes animals are brought into homes both for their protection and for the very practical reason that a couple of big animals can generate quite a bit of heat for the rest of the house on a cold night. In biblical times, if a home was built into a hillside, the animals would be kept in a cave below the main residence. While the animals weren’t in the house proper, they weren’t far away. Since animals must eat, a manger, which is simply a place to put food for animals, would be present.
Moreover, Luke says that they were in the manger area because there was “no room for them in the inn” (2:7). It is unlikely that the tiny village of Bethlehem would have had a public inn. The Gospel more likely means that there was no guest room available. At the time, houses were not large. If there were already relatives using any extra space, it makes sense that Joseph would want Mary to have some privacy when she gave birth and not just deliver Jesus in a public courtyard.
So rather than putting the Holy Family out in a field somewhere, it would be more realistic to imagine Joseph making sure his beloved Mary was tucked into a warm (if a bit smelly) space where she could labor and give birth to her son in privacy and safety. As a good husband, it was the least he could do.
Saint Joseph was a just man, a tireless worker, the upright guardian of those entrusted to his care. May he always guard, protect, and enlighten families. –Saint John Paul II
Saint Joseph, may we always put our families and their needs as a priority in our lives. Amen.
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