It’s Advent and Christmas is just around the corner. Here in the U.S. the stores have been full of Christmas regalia for months and many of us are already sick of Christmas carols and the glare of Christmas lights. At church we are getting ready for our pageants and our Christmas parties. The nativity scenes are being assembled and our images of Jesus and his family alone and abandoned in a dirty stable are forming. But is that the way it really was?
According to New Testament theologian Kenneth Bailey in his wonderful book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Middle Eastern cultures are known for their hospitality and Joseph was coming home with a new wife and an expected first child. The whole family was gathering, aunts and uncles, cousins and brothers and sisters. All of them coming home. Yes there was a census that brought them together but in a fun loving culture like this it would not have diminished the welcome or the excitement of a homecoming gathering. The expectation of a baby to be born in their midst would only have increased the excitement.
As Kenneth Bailey explains, the Greek word (katalyma or kataluma) translated as ‘inn’ in Luke 2:7 does not mean a commercial building with rooms for travelers. It’s a guest space, typically the upper room of a common village home.
“A simple village home in the time of King David, up until the Second World War, in the Holy Land, had two rooms—one for guests, one for the family. The family room had an area, usually about four feet lower, for the family donkey, the family cow, and two or three sheep. They are brought in last thing at night and taken out and tied up in the courtyard first thing in the morning.
“Out of the stone floor of the living room, close to family animals, you dig mangers or make a small one out of wood for sheep. Jesus is clearly welcomed into a family home,” (54)
It was to this simple village home that the shepherds and wise men came. Shepherds despised and regarded as unclean by their society, are visited by angels and invited to join the great home coming celebration that marks the coming of the child who will become the Messiah. For them to be invited into a family home is far more remarkable than an invitation to a stable. This is good news indeed for the outcast and the despised.
Then the wise men come, according to Bailey, rich men on camels, probably from Arabia. And they come not to the city of Jerusalem where the Jews thought God’s glory would shine, but to the child born in a manager around whom there is already a great light. The wise men come to find a new home, a new place of belonging that has beckoned to them across the world. This too is remarkable and good news for people of all nations who long for a place to call home.
Bailey tells us that the birth stories of Jesus “de-Zionize” the Messianic traditions. Hopes and expectations for the city of Jerusalem are fulfilled in the birth of the child Jesus. (p54) The new family, the community that will be formed around this child, does not look to the earthly Jerusalem as its home, but to the heavenly Jerusalem which will come down from heaven as a gift of God at the end of history. (Revelation 21:1-4). And it is to this home, a place with no more tears, or oppression or starvation that all of us are beckoned by the birth of Christ.
I love this imagery. Even in the birth of Jesus we are called towards a new family and a new home. There are family and friends and animals. And special invitations by angels for the despised and rejected, and a star to guide the strangers and those who seem far off. The new family and the home envisioned in the birth of Jesus is inclusive of all who accept God’s invitation.
In A Journey Toward Home: Soul Travel for Advent to Lent,one of the reflections in it is on the French custom of santons:
Santons are, literally, “little saints.” Part of a typical French Nöel crèche, santons come in work clothes to visit the Holy Family. They bring the Christ Child presents they have made or grown, hunted or sold. They perform or offer simple gestures of thoughtfulness…..
The shepherds summon all Provençal villagers. They bring their unique gifts to honor the newborn child: the baker (or his son) with typical Provençal breads like la banette and le pain Calendal (a round country loaf marked with a cross and baked only at Christmastime), the vegetable merchant, the cheese vendor, the basket maker, the wine grower, the humble woman or man who brings only a bundle of sticks for a fire to keep the baby warm.
A poor old man, who thinks he has nothing to give the Baby, holds his lantern and offers to light the way for others. His gift of thoughtfulness and courtesy earns him a place in the scene.
I love this custom that invites all the people of our community to stand around the manger with us, whether they are rich, or poor black or white, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or transexual. The question for all of us during Advent is, “To where will we welcome Jesus and who will we welcome with him?” Do we really want him moving into our homes or is it easier to relegate him to the stable, to see him as an outsider, not really part of the family? Seeing Jesus in an out-of-the-way place where disreputable people like shepherds can come to worship without us having to worry about them messing up our homes makes life easy for us. We get that glow that tells us Jesus is here, but there is very little commitment required of us.
Do we really want to make room for the excluded and the ignored – the prostitutes, the drug traffickers, the illegal immigrants, the disabled and the socially unacceptable – at the manger in our homes? Will we gather with friends and strangers around the manger in church, in homeless shelters, in refugee camps, on the borders that keep out the unwanted? How will we extend an invitation through our churches or faith communities so that everyone feels welcome together at the birth of Christ?