Shortly after my life flipped around I was at a garage sale and found a picture of Jesus for $0.50. Growing up Catholic, images of his face around the house felt natural. So did palm leaves and crosses, but I didn’t have any of those. So I gave the woman a dollar, waited for my change, and took Jesus home to hang on the wall.
It was kind of nice. When I passed by I might be like, “Oh, hi, Jesus. Fancy you hanging around.”
But when I moved out a year later, I left Jesus in the duct space above the ceiling vents so that he could watch over some other people. Maybe blow some fresh life into an old apartment.
Why didn’t I take 50 cent Jesus? I couldn’t. Between the time I’d purchased him and the time I left him behind, I had learned that the Jesus I’d meet someday looked nothing like the Jesus hanging on my wall. I had been lied to for years. Sandy blonde Jesus, blue-eyed Jesus didn’t exist. And I have no reason to think he ever will. So I left that Western Jesus behind.
A few years ago, I was forced to do the same thing with the Christmas Story. This has been a dangerous transition because it’s nearly impossible to avoid churches at Christmas when you’re a pastor’s wife. And while I gave my husband the research and have him on the bandwagon of “No caves! No barns!” I can’t just stand up and scream that at every special Christmas event I attend.
I would steal the tradition and nostalgia without having time to replace it with awe and wonder.
And so rather than do that in public, I’m going to do that here. Because once uncovered, there is something exquisite—perfect—about the story we’ve likely botched for too long.
It turns out the Christmas Story we celebrate is rooted more in a third century novel than it is biblical culture and history. Around 200 A.D. an anonymous author wrote a book titled, The Protevangelium of James. But James had nothing to do with the book. I suppose it was a popular thing of the times to write something and claim that someone else, more famous than yourself, did the work. It was using someone else’s platform, which is quite the opposite of today when ALL of us are trying to build our OWN platforms.
Still, the desire was the same. Someone wanted to be heard.
Kenneth Bailey writes in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes:
- The author had clearly read the gospels, but was unfamiliar with the geography of the Holy Land. He describes the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem as a desert rather than a lush farmland.
- The six months of pregnancy available (Luke 1.56-2.5) for Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem and prepare becomes a last minute journey. In fact, the anonymous author has Mary say to Jospeh, “Take me down from the ass, for the child within me presses me, to come forth.”
- In a panic, Joseph responds by rushing Mary to a cave while he rushes off to Bethlehem to find a midwife even though the baby is already born.
It’s the gospel fancified. But I can see elements of that novel that made it into my own Christmas skin—skin that needed to be shed so that I could see something new.
In contrast, Bailey, an ordained minister with degrees in Arabic, literature, systematic theology, and a Th.D. in New Testament and who has lived for forty years in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus while teaching, and holds the title of research professor of Middle Eastern New Testament studies in Jerusalem, offers us these points to consider (taken nearly verbatim from Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes):
- Joseph and Mary traveled back to Joseph’s home village. Bailey writes, “In the Middle East, historical memories are long, and the extended family…is important.” Joseph could have greeted people in Bethlehem with the phrase, ‘I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi’ and doors would have been opened to him.”
- Joseph was a descendent of royal blood through the line of David. This made him part of a celebrity family in Bethlehem, a town known by locals as the City of David.
- In every culture a woman preparing for birth is given extra special attention. Bailey writes, “Simple rural communities all over the world always assist one of their own women in childbirth regardless of the circumstances. Are we to imagine that Bethlehem was the exception? Was there no sense of honor here? Surely the community would have sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed. To turn away a descendent of David in the “City of David” would be an unspeakable crime” (p. 26).
And so the chapter continues that Luke uses two different words for “inn” as he wrote his gospel—katalyma and pandocheion.
Bailey writes, “If Luke expected his readers to think Joseph was turned away from an “inn” he would have used pandocheion which was a commercial inn. In fact, it is pandocheion that is used in the story of the Good Samaritan.
But instead, Luke used the word katalyma. This is the same word Jesus uses when he instructs his disciples to go and secure for them the Upper Room.
So when we consider the story of Jesus’ birth, we must erase the idea of an ancient commercial inn that was filled to the max, and consider instead a guest room attached to a house was full. So where would a young couple of royal blood go in the City of David?
More than likely in the main family room. But wait a minute. What about the mangers? Walter Liefled writes in his commentary on Luke, “Even today in many places around the world farm animals and their fodder are often kept in the same building as the family quarters.”
The diagram below shows a house of this time in three segments. The back portion was the katalyma—the guest room that was full. The middle portion is the family room where the family slept together, taking advantage of the heat provided by the animals, who were boarded in a slightly depressed front portion of the home used as a stable. The mangers were elevated and placed on that edge of the family room so that the animals could simply walk over and eat.
Which allows us to consider that Mary might have given birth in a family room and used the mangers at her side as the crib.
Why is this so important to me? Why does it turn me into a crazy woman at Christmas?
Because there is treasure here:
We have victimized Mary and Joseph—imagining them alone in a dark and cold place, pushing the savior of the world into being without anyone around. And if we aren’t careful, we can start to wonder where was God in this? Why would he let Mary suffer so much? Was she so loathed that she didn’t even deserve attendance at birth?
If He is really the God who Sees, why did He not see to the needs of Mary while birthing His child?
It’s even possible to read the account of Luke—while depositing all of our preconceived ideas of the Christmas Story—and wonder, how could those nasty inn keepers turn away a pregnant woman? I would never do that. I would always open my door to her.
But would I?
BBC had an article yesterday titled, “Help! The Family is Coming!” It discussed the best ways to keep from having to pick your own family and friends up from the airport, how to kindly suggest they stay at a hotel rather than your home, and how to even politely put boundaries on their visit, encouraging them to come for just a few days rather than a week. It also suggested that a person not go in debt hosting company, and while I think that is good advice, I had to ask, “We go into debt for cars and cell phones. Why not scrap those and choose people?”
Yeah, I think we can safely say the art of hospitality is lost on us.
Here is my long, long point:
I just finished watching the beautifully embellished series The Red Tent, and if there is anything I realized, it is that childbirth looks so much different in most cultures than it does in ours.
It’s a reason for gathering. It’s a celebration. It’s earthy and messy and beautiful. It’s a chance for women to empower another woman as she pushes life into the world.
And it’s not done alone.
And so as we consider Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth—Luke who esteemed women and their roles in Jesus’ life and ministry—and realize that the guest room was full but that a family most likely invited Mary into their humble, shared quarters to deliver, we start to recognize the Savior Jesus claimed to be.
We see him as the extraordinary Messiah who preferred to be with the common people in common quarters. We see a Teacher whose entire earthly ministry was a thread weaving through homes as people invited him inside. We see a King who preferred humility and simplicity over pomp and circumstance. We see a man who claimed nothing as His own so that as God He could claim all who are His.
And if we miss the cultural implications that suggest an open invitation by a common family in this first Christmas, we miss the celebration.
Jesus chose to enter the world right in the middle of family—in the midst of their personal, intimate quarters. And as those women gathered around Mary and encouraged her to labor for her Son who would later labor for us, we start to realize that this life—this living and breathing Christ—is best done together. In homes. With hospitality. Inviting people into the intimate spaces of our lives so that we can labor our own salvation together through the strength of His Spirit by the grace of His Son.
So what do I do with the Christmas story? I could put a nativity in the duct work before we move. Or I could make peace that we just don’t know what Scripture doesn’t tell us. I can stop trying to insert more aloneness than what was recorded, or more humility than what was already present. I can’t stop trying to make the townspeople rude or Mary scared. I can just accept the fact that God was there, watching as His Son was born. And that is more than I deserve.
Books to Read: Kenneth E. Bailey Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, Walter L. Liefeld The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke Vol. 8