Scripture - Luke 2:15-20
Luke 2:15-20 (Common English Bible)
15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.
I grew up with this definite image of how the birth of Jesus came about. I’m not even sure of where this idea came from - but maybe you all can relate to the story as it is so often told. I have the image of an incredibly pregnant Mary on the back of a donkey that Joseph is leading into Bethlehem. They stop at an inn and are told by the innkeeper they have no room. They stop at another inn - same story. No room. A third innkeeper has compassion on the couple, seeing as Mary is about to give birth, and says that there’s a stable round back. They make it just in time because lo and behold, Jesus is ready to appear and Mary wraps him in swaddling clothes, lays him in a manger with no one else but Joseph and the animals in attendance. Jesus is rejected even before his birth, alone and apart from the rest of humanity except for his nuclear family - and that somehow, we have to go find him out in the stable to worship him - that we have to go to him because he’s this figure that was somehow marginalized at birth.
What if the birth took place in a different way?
If we carefully look at the text, what the birth narrative actually says, and understand the traditions around hospitality and homes present in first century Palestinian culture - we might find a story that fits more consistently with the idea that Jesus comes into our ordinary lives in surprising (and disruptive!) ways and turns everything upside down forever.
Much of this comes from the writings of Ian Paul, who is an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and serves as an adjunct minister at an Anglican church in England. He writes every year about this - how Jesus wasn’t born in a stable. That one fact makes all the difference. (Drop the link: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/jesus-wasnt-born-in-a-stable-and-that-makes-all-the-difference/)
But how? Wasn’t Jesus laid in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger? Isn’t that where animals eat? And if Mary and Joseph were where animals ate, wouldn’t that be in a stable?
Well, yes, Jesus was laid in a manger - but that wasn’t necessarily in a stable. That idea probably got traction in the middle ages, where medieval illustrators got the notion of the oxen and donkey being present in the story (a reference to a verse in Isaiah, by the way). The illustrators assumed, then, because animals were kept in a stable, then that’s where Jesus was.
But what about the inn?
The word translated as “inn” in verse 7 of Luke’s 2nd chapter in the original greek is the word “kataluma”, which more accurately refers to a room in a private house where travelers received hospitality and where no payment was expected. The design of first century Palestinian homes supports this, where families would live in a one room house, with a room in the back or on the roof for travelers, and where animals would bed at night in a lower compartment adjacent to the main room. There would be divots in the floor of the main room by the animal compartment or “stable” filled with hay for the animals to feed at night. (Incidentally, the recommendations of midwives at the time based on archaeology was for new mothers to place their babies in these hollows for use as a cradle.)
The home most likely would have been one belonging to relatives of Joseph - even distant relatives. The culture of hospitality at the time meant that if Joseph was returning to his ancestral home, he was honor-bound to seek out members of his family, and they would have received him. All he had to do was recite his lineage, and he would have been welcomed and received as family.
So the likely scenario is this: Mary and Joseph travel to Bethehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. The family guest room is already full, with family members who have arrived earlier, so they have to stay with the family in the main house. (Or, the guest room isn’t big enough for Mary to give birth in). Mary gives birth there; she would not have given birth alone, but would have been attended to by the other women of the household or midwives. She lays Jesus in the animal feeding trough, right in the center of everyday life. People are in and out of the home, including the shepherds who have received this wondrous message from the angels as they were tending their sheep. The text says, “16 [The shepherds] went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.”
And we find Mary through this experience, taking it in, considering what this all means.
For me, this means that when God chose to come down as one of us - as Love incarnate is born into the world - it doesn’t happen in a far away place, distant from the rest of humanity. It doesn’t happen in a neat and tidy guestroom, special and prepared and reserved for honored guests. It happens right where life happens. Messy, chaotic, life.
And if that’s where Jesus comes into the world, if that where love is waiting for us, if Jesus bursts onto the scene right in the middle of everything - then maybe that’s where we can find Jesus too - in the midst of our everyday life with its routines and its chaos. Jesus is Immanuel - God with us - and that means we don’t have to go off to some specially prepared place where everything is just so, but we can find him right where we are. Because God came as one of us.
As Ian Paul puts it, “For Luke, Jesus isn’t pictured as born ‘over there’, away from everyday life, inviting us to visit once a year, but at the heart of the home, asking whether we too will make space for him. He isn’t pictured as poor and outcast (not here at least) asking what we can do for him, but as a child of hope and promise, asking what he might do for us. He isn’t pictured as rejected, inviting us to pity him, but as welcomed, asking us whether we will welcome him too.”
As we look to be unafraid to choose love in a world bound by uncertainty, as we strive to hold on to hope, bring peace, and practice joy - it starts here. In this year where we cannot hold on to our traditions and routines very easily, where many of us cannot make the pilgrimage to visit family and friends, the fact that Jesus meets us right in our very homes, coming as a surprising, disruptive, but welcome presence, who will turn our very lives upside down, is important to hold on to. It gives us the courage and the strength to choose love again and again - because we don’t have to have it all perfect, we don’t have to have everything prepared and just so, we don’t have to go away and have some spiritual experience - we just have to start right here, wherever we are, and chose to welcome Jesus - sometimes welcoming him each and every day.
Jesus was born among family, right into the center of home and life. May we let Jesus be born in our homes, in our lives, in our hearts. And may we do so knowing that as we choose love, we do so for the sake of a world that God so desperately loves - as we work and pray for the healing and redemption of us all. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.