The nativity story is probably the best known Bible story, so it’s the one that’s most augmented. Pretty much every primary school on the planet is trying to do a different nativity play, a different spin on what we’ve heard every year since we were in the play ourselves. And every year there’s a sermon that suggests a new or different way of looking at the story, too.
This year I’ve been reading Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (a book I can thoroughly recommend if you want your preconceptions about the cultural context of Jesus and his stories challenged!) His reading and description of the nativity narratives have really made me think about the way our culture has stolen and misunderstood the actual Bible text.
Let’s start with the shepherds. We sometimes dwell on the low status of shepherds in sermons, but this ignores the fact that they were real people who, while thought of as suspicious, lived with other normal people in a normal way for first century Judea. They believed in honour, family and the precious gift of new life.
So the shepherds see Angels and follow their instructions to find the baby in a manger. Never mind how it is they find him so quickly in the town, they find Jesus, then “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
The story we’re used to has them leaving a mother who has just endured labour with no female support, a father who has no way to provide for or even find habitable shelter for his family and a newborn exposed in an animal shed. And callous shepherds who just leave them to it and go home!
They could not do that – the honour of their entire community rested on their response to the need of these special guests. Bailey says ” The fact that they walked out, without moving the young family, means that the shepherds felt that they could not offer better hospitality that what had already been extended to them”
We’ve heard a million times how Jesus was born in a stable, but look in your actual Bible (not the kiddy story book!) The word stable isn’t in there – because normal people (i.e. non-millionaires) in the near east would not have had separate stables, but rather animals shared the single room of the house on a slightly lower floor to the people. Bailey goes into much more detail that I can (p28-31) showing that the normal arrangement was to have a manger in the house, that Jesus had been welcomed into someone’s home. The shepherds found him, found there was nothing more they could do for the family and went to tell everyone, praising God.
But what about the Inn? Mary and Joseph were turned away from everywhere, right? Well perhaps the word translated “inn” really means something else. The gospel writers had a word for hotel or guest house (see the story of the good Samaritan) but used a different one here – one that can better be thought of as “guest room” – an extra bedroom built as an extension to the one-room house either on the same level or on the roof. Someone was already occupying the guest room, so the family welcomed Jesus’ parents into their own home in their hour of greatest need.
So the story of the Incarnation might need reshaping a bit. This is not the story of rejection, of God identifying with all our darkest hours and deepest pains, in poverty and loneliness – we have those stories already in Jesus’ teaching ministry and more importantly, his death.
Immanuel, “God with Us” means utter dependence – the Omnipotent is helpless. Jesus has to depend not only on parents who have been told his significance and importance, but on strangers, a community to whom he has only a tenuous blood-line connection. Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home, but we don’t know how long his part of the family had been gone ‘up north’. Yet here he is, funny northern accent, pregnant wife, faint whiff of scandal and all and he’s taken in. Matthew’s gospel hints that the family stayed for months (until the Magi visit).
We often talk about the gift of Jesus at Christmas, but in this story, it is Jesus who is doing the receiving, unable to return anything, unable to do anything at all. The gift of new life is given, but it needs the nurture and care of a family and the generosity of a whole community to get going.
The reciprocal gifts of contemporary Christmas are the opposite of the giving of that first Christmas – self interested and meaningless. The giving of Christmas is pure love, un-returnable gifts, utter dependence on the generosity of others. I can almost hear an echo of the grown-up Jesus as I suggest that maybe we should only give to people who can’t give back to us this year. Sadly, this kind of giving and receiving is perhaps more necessary this year than any other in my lifetime – maybe a real Christmas gift would be to food bank this year.
Also, to end on a high note, when we see that kind of giving, we need to celebrate it, praising God and telling everyone, just like the shepherds did!
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace to those on whom his favour rests!”