A Christmas Eve Message...
I’m going to say something now but you have to promise not to get mad at me. Jesus probably wasn’t born in a stable. Now I promise, I’m not trying to ruin your Christmas. I would never bring this up unless I thought that it could actually increase the meaningfulness of our celebrations, not decrease it. So, let me explain:
The actual design of Palestinian houses in Jesus day was to have one single room in which the family would live. The family’s animals were not kept in a separate dwelling, but would be brought inside at night to a lower compartment in that single family room, which would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with hay, where the animals would feed. Each house would have a room for guests in the back or on the roof. There is actually a fair bit of evidence that the greek word that is often translated as “inn” or “guest room” most likely refers to a spare room or upper room in a private house, and not to an inn as we might think of it now, a public boarding place for travelers.
Additionally, many scholars maintain that given the standards of hospitality at the time, it would have been unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his ancestral home, would have been turned away from anyone’s house. Even very distant relatives, and Joseph would have had many in Bethlehem, would have immediately welcomed Mary and Joseph into their homes. What is most likely then, is that the guest room was already taken, and so Mary and Joseph needed to stay in the family room, with the rest of the family, and of course, the animals.
So where do we get the notion of the stable? We note that the text does not say anything about a stable. The idea comes from centuries of reading the birth narrative with Western eyes. A culture that places their animals in a stable separate from the family home will see those assumptions in the text. A culture that does not center hospitality in the same way will view Mary and Joseph as being “turned away.”
And so, let me just say that there is nothing wrong with the way that we tell the Christmas story as it is now. It communicates some very powerful and important things about the incarnation. The turning away from the inn brings home to us how easy it is to turn away from God in our lives, to say not now, not here, not me. It speaks of such a great love and humility on the part of God, to enter into our world, in the quiet, alone, on the margins, without fanfare. In a complicated and discouraging world, we long for simplicity and peace and inclusion, and God’s birth can certainly bring these things home to us.
But I think that it is also true that the way we tell the story creates a some distance. The picture of the holy family up on a hill, by themselves in a stable with only the animals…it’s beautiful and rarefied yes, but also a little remote. And perhaps this remoteness allows us to disengage from this immensely powerful story, to keep it relegated to the Christmas season, a beautiful nativity scene only to be looked at and not touched. Certainly having nothing to do with our lives from January to November. Certainly having nothing to do with our lives as they are, which are often complicated, raucous, messy and heartbreaking. Do we think that this is what Divine Love intends for us to believe, that God wouldn’t enter into our lives as they are?
So let me suggest an alternative.
When Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, there was no space in the guest room, so they were told to make themselves comfortable in the family room. Among the animals, yes, but also among the pots and pans and the paraphernalia of life. When it came time for Mary to deliver, it would have been a bustling place, aunties and cousins hovering, heating water on the fire, community midwives rubbing Mary’s back, Joseph and the men fetching wood, children peeking around the corners with wide eyes, animals munching on their straw. As Mary labored and paced and pushed, as Divine Love was birthed into the world with body and breath and life, our God was incarnated in the midst of human activity, in the midst of culture and family and connection. Jesus was born in a middle-eastern living room, his first cries heard with joy and applause, not because he was God but because he was loved.
And the reality is…this picture has more in common with the hustle and bustle of each of our own family Christmases than with the quiet peaceful pastoral scene we often look to. As you tumble downstairs tomorrow morning, or round the corner, into your raucous? Christmas morning, God is already there, being born into your Christmas living room, among the family dogs, cats, goldfish and gerbil, next to the sofa and the tv and the coffee table, the places where we spend our days.
God is being born amidst all the shrieks of joy and contented smiles, the Christmas pudding coming out a bit burnt and the cranberry sauce spilling on the floor, the tensions rising and falling, the lame family jokes, the dog getting into the garbage, the misunderstandings and the forgiving of them. This is where God would be born, within all of it. Exactly where new life should be found.
We don't have to become like our Christmas story, quiet, peaceful and perfect for God to be present. Sure, sometimes it helps to us take a breath, to silence our chattering thoughts…but that is about us being able to notice God’s presence, not about God’s desire to be with us, to be born within our very lives, messy and incomplete as they are. Our God was born into our world, as it was, as it is.
So, for all the ways in which the traditional telling of the Christmas story calls us to be brave, welcoming, generous, reverent and joyful, let’s definitely keep it. But perhaps it is time to question how it might also keep us at arms length from the immense love of God, from the ways in which God would be born into our lives right now, in each beautiful and difficult moment. From the way that God unabashedly embraced our human particularity and our human experience. In the words of Sarah Bessey, “it’s not Jesus otherness but his us-ness, his human-ness, his full experience as fully human and fully God together that is the miracle [of the incarnation.]” Let us welcome the birthing of God into our living rooms, and let us be not afraid, for we call our God “Emmanuel” God-with-us. Let us let God be with us.
Ian Paul, “Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable.” https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/once-more-jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable/?fbclid=IwAR0Q5khXkb-x4-aFWX9ujisBVjCnaxQqeyAJ9zDPDaSHEhLaxuFC9rkqVqg
Sarah Bessey, “Why everything you know about the nativity is probably wrong.” https://sarahbessey.substack.com/p/why-everything-you-know-about-the?fbclid=IwAR3YxC4JUHGDn28eakxkEbKpDnm3AMzlsycpXim3YfrPGDMZttUXwOOr9Wc