Hello everyone, and welcome to the Christmas video for 2021.
A story is told of a school nativity play in a very competitive school in which children vied each year to take the starring roles. On one occasion, a young man was denied the part of Joseph, something he had coveted for some time and was cast as the innkeeper. Furious at this, he plotted his revenge. When, in the first performance, Joseph and Mary knocked on his door asking for accommodation, rather than saying, “sorry, there’s no room.” With a dramatic gesture, he threw the door open and shouted, “come on in, you can have the best room in the house.” Quick as a flash, the young man actually cast as Joseph replied, “We’re not staying in this dump; we’ll go down the road to the stable.”
We may find such a story amusing because it's so familiar to us. But there are many parts of the Christmas story that don’t quite add up. By that, I don’t mean that we must cast huge doubts on their historicity, but that the story as we have often received it, and certainly as we tell it in Christmas nativities, doesn’t properly translate the biblical narrative itself. In Luke chapter 2 verse 7, the King James translation says, “and she brought her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them at the inn.” Note first of all there is no Innkeeper mentioned at all. (rather like it's never mentioned there are three wise men) Inevitably we read this text through modern western eyes. We read the word translated, ‘inn’ and immediately think Travelodge or local pub with accommodation over and genial landlord. We read the word manger and immediately associate it with a stable and think run down shed some way from where everyone lives. The more accurate NIV translation says, “and she gave birth to their firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no guest room available for them.”
From what we know of ancient near eastern houses, the people and the animals shared the house. The animals took the lower part, and the family lived and slept on a sort of mezzanine at one end, with a guest room attached. The Greek word katalumati, translated as inn by the King James version, probably refers to such a guest room in an ordinary house. Because that was full, Mary would have given birth in the typical family quarters and perhaps laid Jesus in one of the impressions on the floor that were filled with hay for the animals to reach over and eat from. The most likely modern equivalent is not of Mary giving birth in some remote animal shed but in the living room. More like guests turning up for Christmas when you have a full house, having to put up a bed for them in the living room and one of them giving birth before the ambulance can arrive.
Given Joseph’s ancestry, it would have been a great social shame to put then in outside animal quarters. Ken Bailey, the middle eastern cultural scholar, says, “Even if Joseph has never been there before, he can appear suddenly at the home of a distant cousin, recite his genealogy, and he is among friends. Joseph had only to say, “I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar, the son of Eliud,” and the immediate response must have been, “You are welcome. What can we do for you?” If Joseph did have some member of the extended family resident in the village, he was honour-bound to seek them out. Furthermore, if he did not have family or friends in the village, as a member of the famous house of David, for the “sake of David,” he would still be welcomed into almost any village home.”
The typical scene beloved of Christmas cards, nativity plays and popular carols extends the clearly miraculous conception of Jesus to a strange and unusual birthplace. We talk of Jesus sharing our experience, but the story extrapolated from a verse in Luke’s gospel actually serves to distance him from us. The whole point is that Jesus birth takes place in a crowded Palestinian home, just like many other Jewish boys of the time. The birth is actually nothing unusual.
I’m so sorry if this undermines your carol singing, with its familiar but likely false imagery. If we penetrate through the accretions of legend and tradition to the text itself, we find a much richer and more powerful picture of God’s intimate involvement with his broken creation.
I hope your Christmas this year is joyous, that you are able to be with all the family and friends you missed last year and that the wonderful message that God is with us finds a deep place in all our hearts. He has been with us through COVID, he has shared in our pain and confusion, and he will be with us as we look forward to an emergence from this pandemic and a different world beyond it. He walks alongside us in our confusion and uncertainty. This story reassures us that he truly entered into the human story warts and all. God is indeed Immanuel, God with us.
Have a very happy Christmas.