As I sit down to write this, the skies are gray and it looks like late evening, even though it's noon. Heavy clouds hang overhead, and for the last twelve hours, thunderheads have been pounding this part of the world. It's tempting to describe the weather in apocalyptic terms, especially when I heard this morning that a small town not far away got eight inches of rain last night. Though we didn't get nearly that amount I didn't sleep much, listening to the rain pound the roof over my head and watching lightning flash the oak trees outside my window into stark relief against the lake. I had long hours to lay awake thinking and watching. It was a spectacular night.
There are lots of ways to describe the same scene. I could wax eloquent about darkness at midday, or I could analyze the cumulonimbus clouds and the prevailing winds, or I could make a joke about building an ark.
In similar fashion, the various biblical writers describe God becoming human in diverse ways. John goes back to the language of Genesis, starting with "In the beginning ..." Matthew emphasizes the entirety of the Old Testament story and tells the awkward tale of this illegitimate pregnancy from Joseph's perspective. For a completely different version of the Christmas story writ large as a Tolkien epic complete with a dragon, check out Revelation 12.
Luke, on the other hand, stays mostly with Mary's perspective and tells things from as factual a stance as possible, emphasizing how Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem in obedience to Caesar's edict. (He is, recall, writing to a Roman official arguing, at least in part, that this Jesus-movement is not a threat to Rome, at least in the political / military sense.) In that same factual tone, Luke tells us that "while they were there, the time came for her to give birth." As much as we enjoy the dramatic scene of Joseph and Mary screeching into town with Mary already in labor on the back of a donkey, that's not in the text. We like dramatic timing, but all we know from Luke's account is that at some point while they were in town, Mary's baby was born. Similarly, we have no innkeeper to blame for their lodging in a stable -- nor any stable, for that matter. And though the ESV and other translations keep the term "inn," the Greek word for a place anyone can rent a room is not used here -- rather, the word is better translated "guest room."
In all likelihood, looking at the culture of the time and the information we have in the Bible, Joseph had extended family still living in Bethlehem and it would have been unthinkable not to stay with them. Most Jewish houses of this era had a common living area with one or possibly two separate bedrooms. In a lower portion of the house, separated from the common living room by a step down and probably by a long, low manger, a few animals were kept. So while it wreaks havoc with Sunday School Christmas programs, what likely happened was that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary arrived in Bethlehem and stayed with some of his cousins. Because other guests with higher social standing were already in the home, Joseph and Mary slept in the common room, and when Jesus was born there was no place to lay him except in the feed trough.
Maybe not. Maybe the cave you can visit in Bethlehem to this day is the actual place of Jesus' birth. In the end, it doesn't matter. Still, we need to try -- hard as it is -- to read the Bible for what it actually says, and not bring our assumptions (romanticized or cynical or whatever) to the text.
In any case, Jesus got born in a small village a few miles from the bustling metropolis of Jerusalem, to a not-quite-married couple who were displaced by Augustus' demand that all the world should be registered for taxation and military purposes. His mother, who didn't legally need to travel to Bethlehem, was probably relieved to be out from under the watchful eye of the gossips in Nazareth, but she was likely lonely, and afraid, and feeling caught up in matters far beyond her control. She could feel, if not see, that dragon waiting to devour her and the baby she bore. But even in these chaotic things, God is in control. He's been working for at two millennia and more to heal his broken creation, to reconcile his alienated people, and this is the first move in the climactic phase of the story he is writing. Tomorrow we'll gain just a glimpse of how God himself wants to announce these events, and to whom.