Contrary to the traditional telling of this story, there was almost certainly no innkeeper refusing Mary and Joseph for lack of a room. Luke makes it very clear that Mary and Joseph had already been staying in Bethlehem for several days, and “while they were there” the days were completed for her to be delivered. Mary and Joseph would undoubtedly have been staying with extended family who also were of the house and lineage of David.
The word that is used here for “inn,” kataluma, is much more accurately translated as “guest room.” (Luke uses a different word for “inn” in 10:34.) Homes in Israel at this time would usually have had their sleeping quarters and guest rooms upstairs. Because of the census, all the places for family guests to stay were already full up, and so Joseph and Mary had to stay in an area of the lower level where animals would often be kept at night indoors, especially when the weather was colder. Mary and Joseph are in the overflow area. Mary gives birth in the lower level of a full house, in a somewhat more secluded section of the ground level where some of the animals had been brought in for the night.
So consider this scene: in a house filled with sleeping relatives, there is a first time mother ready to give birth. Joseph and Mary likely had their bedding set up in the main living area downstairs, back near the animal pens--sort of the "garage" area of the house. And the time came for her to be delivered–with little privacy, right in the middle of the clutter and chaos of life. And she gave birth to her firstborn, a Son, our Lord Jesus, and wrapped Him in strips of cloth as was the custom, and laid Him in the nearby manger, an animal feeder full of soft hay.
What an unexpected way for the King of kings to be born! But what a marvelous message it sends to us. For it shows us that our Lord Jesus truly is Emmanuel, God with us–right in the middle of the messiness of our lives. He’s not a royal elitist carefully avoiding the life of the common folk. He doesn’t keep a safe, antiseptic distance from us. He’s with us right in the middle of our untidy existence and our less-than-perfect families and our strained relationships and our anxiety and fear and sin and brokenness. He literally puts Himself at the lower level. He humbles Himself to share fully in your human life so that through faith in Him you may share fully in His divine life forever.
Jesus lies with the animals in order to rescue us from our beastly sin
and inhumanity, and to make us fully human again in Him. Among the
animals we are now given to see Jesus as the new Adam. For just as in
Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
Very interestingly, kataluma is the same word used in Luke for the upper room where Jesus instituted Holy Communion on the night before His death (Lk 22:11). Bethlehem, which means house of bread, is now quite literally housing the Bread of Life, the same Jesus who will give Himself to us, the Living Bread from heaven, in the Sacrament of the Altar. Jesus is laid in a manger, a feeding trough, because He has come to be holy food for us. We feast on His life-giving words and preaching, as it is written, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Ps 119:103). And the Living Bread from heaven makes His manger in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, that we may receive His body and blood for the forgiveness of all our sins.
(For further reference see this article.)