Reading: Luke 2: 1-20
It is fairly clear that our understanding of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus are usually formed by our continued exposure to the traditional Christmas Story embellished as it is with beliefs that simply do not fit the facts.
However, with a closer look at Biblical references, Archaeological evidence and 1st Century Cultural context, the details surrounding Jesus` birth may be quite different from what we have traditionally thought.
Despite much research, what I call Traditional Elaboration remains widely accepted and deeply entrenched in the Christian belief system. The central garment of truth is embroidered with all sorts of embellishments that do not fit the facts.
We traditionally believe that Jesus was born in a stable because a mean old Inn-keeper refused to offer accommodation to Joseph and Mary when they desperately needed it.
Without spending too much time on the Inn-Keeper, for reasons which will come clearer as we proceed, suffice it to say, he`s been treated rather harshly and somewhat unfairly. He`s been portrayed as the epitome of secular preoccupation, ie. too busy and heartless with no time for the spiritual component to life. Some have given him a name; others have made him the centrepiece of poetry. Others have committed him to a life of deep, dark depression when he discovered later that he had sent the Son of the Most High out into the cold that night.
His life became a misery and prompted the oft repeated mantra -`If only I had known.` `If only I had known Who it was that I had said, `No Room in the Inn`, to.`
Prolific author, Max Lucado waxes lyrical in his writings when he talks about
Majesty in the midst of the mundane.
Honour in the filth and manure and sweat.
Divinity entering the world of the stable floor.
His Golden Throne abandoned in favour of a dirty sheep pen.
Well done, Maxie Boy. Sounds plausible and believable. The King of the Heaven getting down and dirty. But it`s simply not true, nor does Scripture hint that it is so.
Without sounding too dogmatic, I think we can safely say, with evidence confirming that claim, that Joseph did not seek a room in an Inn. There is doubt that there was one in Bethlehem. Besides that, Inns were Dormitory style - no individual rooms and you paid for accommodation. And with exposure to boggling male eyes, it wasn`t a very suitable place for Mary to give birth.
As we proceed I think we can safely say that, Jesus was not born in a stable or a barn, nor a cave as is widely believed. Researchers and Scholars say we need to carefully listen to the people who are at the centre of it all. People like Joseph, Mary and the Shepherds.
Let`s put the spotlight on Joseph:
The Authorised Version preserves a detail, an important detail often lost in later translations. It reads, `While they were there her days were fulfilled.` I understand this to mean `that the final days of Mary`s pregnancy took place after she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem`. We have tended to think that the baby was born a few minutes after their late night arrival on the donkey. One might ask: Where did that come from? It came from a popular novel - written 200 years after the birth of Jesus. The novel has survived and is now called `The Apocryphal Gospel of James`. Novelists have good imaginations - in fact, it is an essential requirement and strangely this detail out of that novel is firmly and deeply lodged in our minds (even though most of us have never heard of the novel).
Gospel writer, Luke, makes it clear that Joseph has plenty of time to arrange adequate and appropriate lodgings for his pregnant wife. And an important thing to remember is that in a peasant society all over the world - help is never far away when a baby is about to be born, especially from the more mature and experienced mothers of the community. Another thing to be considered is to remember that Joseph is of Royal Blood. He is of the `House and Lineage of David` and the text is careful to note that important fact. And
besides that, David the beloved King of Israel was born in Bethlehem and the idea that a descendant of David should return to Bethlehem (the village of his familial origins) with his pregnant wife, seek help and find none, is preposterous.
All he needs to say is
I am Joseph, Son of Heli, Son of Matthat, Son of Levi, Son of David
and he would have received a Royal Welcome.
In fact, they would take deep offence if Joseph had turned elsewhere rather than to the Village people, who were honour-bound. Honour-bound to always welcome one of their own.
The key component in all this is that Joseph has the time to make the necessary and appropriate arrangements. From his earlier decision to divorce Mary quietly rather than expose her to shame and potential stoning, tells us that he is a man of courage and compassion.
Now in Bethlehem are we going to reverse that view and see him as a ditherer and a bumbler, who is so inept that he is unable to arrange anything and is obliged in total humiliation to accept that his wife give birth alone in a dirty smelly stable? To my mind that would be unthinkable. Have we forgotten that the man was a Craftsman, Carpenter - used to arranging time for quotes on all sorts of projects, large and small, and on time and on budget.
Now let`s put the spotlight on Mary:
She had just visited Elizabeth who lives in the hill country of Judea. Bethlehem is in the middle of the hill country and once you reach Bethlehem you are within one hour`s donkey ride from any town in the hill country of Judea. If Joseph fails to find adequate shelter in Bethlehem, they can get to Elizabeth who would welcome them and be deeply offended if, in need, they failed to turn to her. If that had happened, I am sure Joseph would have experienced a king-sized dose of Elizabeth`s displeasure and severe tongue lashing - a thing most men seek to avoid at all costs. So, a question worth asking is, does Mary prefer to give birth alone in a stable or reject the tender and loving care she would have received from cousin Elizabeth? I think not!
Now let`s put the spotlight on the Shepherds:
They are residents of the village and they go to show honour to what they perceive as a very special birth, a gift from the Heavens, they have what we would call a `numenous experience`.
If on arriving, the unpleasant stench of manure and urine hits their nostrils and on enquiry they are told of the Inn-Keeper`s `No room in the Inn` stance - they would be furious and cry out, `This is ridiculous. A descendant of David is turned away in the City of David. Impossible. The honour of the entire village is at stake here. Come home with us. Our women folks will take care of you.`
We know this by the text which reads:
`And the Shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard.`
The word all includes the quality of the hospitality. Something even T.S. Eliot picked up in his later epic poem, `The Journey of the Magi`.
`We continued` he wrote, `and arrived at evening, not a moment too soon, finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.`
These simple Sheepherders could leave the Holy Family, grateful that the Village had done its duty and that these guests were being honoured with the finest hospitality the simple folk of the Village could provide.
Any attempt on the part of the Shepherds to move the family would not have improved the hospitality and would have insulted the current hosts.
The current understanding of the birth of Jesus, among English speaking Christians, fails to give an ear to any of these very important people. They are crucial if we are in any way going to be objective on this issue.
Now the question remains. Can we validate our reasons for having another look at the Birth stories? The simple and firm answer is, Yes we can!
The Greek word that has been translated as `Inn` is Kataluma - which Luke uses to mean `a guest room`. A guest room, attached to a private residence. We know that from Luke 22:11 where Kataluma appears in the text, it means a guest room attached to a private residence. The Lord`s Supper, or the Eucharist, which is observed weekly or more regularly was inaugurated in a Kataluma. Every village home (rich and poor) had one.
When in the parable of the Good or kind Samaritan, Luke wants to discuss a commercial Inn to which the wounded victim was taken to recuperate from his roadside ordeal he uses the word, `Pandockheion`. The two words are very different in spelling, sound and meaning.
Kataluma - Pandockheion
What is referred to as the living space that was full was not in a Pandockheion but in a KatalumaÃÂ¢ÃÂÃÂÃÂ¢ÃÂÃÂa guest room.
Furthermore, the point of the story is not `there is no room available` as in vacant rooms, but rather, `there is no space in the room`. So the whole story of the Inn saga does not fit anywhere in the fact arena and that means `the mean, old Inn-Keeper and his Inn` is the product of someone`s imagination. So might I say, pleasantly, `shelve it.`
The question remains, `What about the manger?` Mangers for us moderns are in barns and stables. Therefore we tend to think Jesus was laid in a manger which are usually located in stables. It is interesting to note that from the time of David up until the World War II, simple village homes in Israel, Palestine and Southern Lebanon had two rooms. One room for guests - and remember hospitality was widely practised and encouraged in all of these areas. All family life took place in the larger room. In that room the family cooked, ate, slept and entertained friends. Privacy which we covet, was painfully unavailable.
On one end of that room they always had a small space set aside for the animals to occupy at night. The family cow, donkey and maybe some sheep and a few goats, were brought into that space at night. First thing in the morning the animals were released into the courtyard and the stalls were cleaned out. This was a daily ritual.
Often the animal stall was about 4 feet lower than the floor of the family room and the manger or the feeding troughs were cut into the floor of the family room to accommodate the larger animals. And because they were too high for the sheep or goats, wooden troughs were brought into suit their specific needs.
Primarily, the birth stories were not written for you. They were written for Luke`s target audience. They were a people who understood all this. This was their cultural understanding of the way things were. But for us 21st Century inhabitants, we need to enter the conversation between Luke and his first listeners. He writes,
`She brought forth her first born Son and laid Him in a manger.` The listener thinks `manger`, that is in the living room. Why didn`t the host open up the guest room, the Kataluma? Everyone has such a room? Knowing that his listeners will ask such a question Luke adds, `because there was no space for them in the Kataluma - the guest room.`
The listener responds within his mind, `Ah, yes, the guest room already had people in it. They are here for the Census. So the host gave Mary and Joseph the family room. Good idea. The family room is much better anyway.`
The Shepherds were told to look for a baby in a manger. They were told, `This will be a sign for you. You will find the baby wrapped and lying in a manger.`
Shepherds in those days were often despised and usually poor and of very low status. Would they be welcome? They were not sure. But if the baby was born in a manger, that means He was born in a family room of a simple village home - like theirs, and they were thereby assured of a warm and friendly welcome.
Now to bring this to a conclusion. The text tells us that Jesus was born in the family room of a village residence (where a manger was available). Joseph was not an inept bumbler who failed to arrange for his family. Mary had all the help she needed and did not in any way offend her relatives, Elizabeth and Zachariah.
The Shepherds were assured of a welcome and were pleased with the quality of the hospitality they observed with their own eyes. With this understanding of the birth of Jesus, the Village honour was also preserved and in an honour/shame culture, this was a very important factor.
This is now my final summation. Does it really matter to people of faith who are committed followers of Jesus of Nazareth, whether He was born in a house or a manger? Whether His conception was told to Joseph or Mary, that His name be Emmanuel or Jesus? These stories witness to the birth - but it is the birth itself that begins redemption.
Sometimes and more often than not, in our haste to focus on the redemptive death of Jesus, we downplay the significance of His redemptive birth and the wonderful transforming and saving life that evolved from it. Thereby forgetting that Salvation, Spiritual Health and Wholeness is first revealed by God`s entry to our world as a human into history. And if God became human, are we not called to share the divine and become God-bearers.
The Christian Mystery (and let no one ever think of it otherwise) in its myriad manifestations, invites us into a unique relationship with the Holy One - indeed nothing short of Transformation into His Likeness.
Surely this is a thing of