It’s Christmas Eve. And I’m not where I expected I would be nine months ago. I’m not even where I expected to be nine days ago.
Mary must have had similar feelings of bewilderment. She had thought she .would give birth to Jesus in familiar surroundings with friends and family helping her. Instead, a Roman tax census had sent her to a distant and over-crowded town. Joseph was at her side, but so were farm animals. She put her baby in a manger instead of a cradle.
This was not the plan.
Luke doesn’t tell us where Mary and Joseph stayed, just that there was no room in the ‘lodging place’ (frequently translated ‘inn’). It’s like we should know what he means. He doesn’t say where the manger was; again, he assumes we know.
Instead, he just says Mary lay Jesus in a manger. That was the bit he didn’t think we’d guess.
I doubt Mary knew how much story and myth would evolve from that one simple action. Other things were on her mind. Elation that her son was now born. Perhaps mingled with disappointment. And confusion about what she should or shouldn’t be feeling.
When hopes go awry, it’s easy to say “All things happen for a reason.” It’s easy to hope that we’ll look back one day and be OK with it. In time, we’ll say that while we wouldn’t have chosen some things, we wouldn’t change them either.
Except it doesn’t always work out that way.
For sure, in Mary’s case it did. Her actions made for a memorable story. And if you didn’t know, there’s cosmic symbolism here. The manger probably wasn’t constructed, but dug out from the earth. Laying him there was like a prophecy of how Jesus would be later be buried.
But many people don’t have that kind of poetry and cyclical completeness. Instead their disappointments are an empty grief without explanation – even in hindsight.
I do believe God will make good on all our disappointments – though how remains a mystery. Meanwhile, I can take at least some comfort in the Christmas story. For though my choices today are subject to the overwhelming political forces of my time, so were Jesus’s in his time.
A short look at the Bible
Time to read the gospel account of Jesus’s birth – two passages today.
Jesus’s birth: Luke 2:1-21
Jesus in the temple with Simeon and Anna: Luke 2:22-40. You’ll have read verses 22-35 already, but they provide good context for 36-40.
No room at the inn?
There were such things as inns in first Century Palestine. The Greek word for them was ‘pandokion’ meaning ‘all are welcome.’ But you only needed such places in deserted areas – and Bethlehem was not deserted. And Luke does not use the word ‘pandokion’ in this passage.
Instead, he uses ‘kataluma,’ which means ‘lodging place.’ It’s the same word for the ‘upper room’ where Jesus shared his last supper with his disciples before his crucifixion.
Oh, and the lower floor was where animals were typically kept.
So Mary probably wasn’t turned away by an innkeeper, and probably didn’t give birth in a stable. She was probably received into someone’s home, albeit along with other people. Without any space in the upper room, she gave birth in the lower room.
About the shepherds: it wasn’t the most glamorous occupation. Which is partly the point, it’s the theme of God lifting up the humble. And it fits with Jesus being a king from the line of David, who was a shepherd. Meanwhile, if the sheep were out on the hillsides, then it was probably sometime between the Spring and October. But not December.
As for Jesus in the temple, I mentioned last week that the Jewish people had a system of rituals and sacrifices, administered by the priesthood. Some sacrifices were to deal with sin (wrongdoing) but many of them were more ceremonial. Giving birth to a boy made the mother ritually unclean for about 40 days. There’s no suggestion that giving birth is a sin, but it nevertheless required a sacrifice. That’s why Mary and Joseph went to the temple after Jesus’s birth.
The offering was meant to be a lamb and a young pigeon or turtle-dove. But if the woman couldn’t afford that, then the offering could be two turtle-doves or two young pigeons. Luke records that Mary went for the latter option. Meaning that she and Joseph weren’t particularly well off.
Again, it’s the theme of God lifting up the humble.
Lastly, I love that Luke mentions Anna prophesying about Jesus.
Though I wish we knew what she said.
As an aside, Paula Gooder talks about ‘kataluma’ and what she finds particularly interesting about this detail of the gospel story. The whole video is over an hour, but the clip about this starts at 12:43 and lasts until 21:00:
Carol: Hark the Herald Angels Sing / Nunc dimittis
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
I didn’t appreciate it growing up, but this hymn is a piece of genius.
Charles Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote over 6,500 hymns in his time. They weren’t all quite this good, but he had a habit of playing on well-known words and phrases, to make something fresh and new with them.
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings.
We’ll all have our own views on what makes a good rendition of this famous carol, but this one was my favourite as I went through YouTube. You can also discern the actual words…
This is far less Christmassy, but still cracking. This version of Simeon’s song is much in the style I knew growing up. Again, not to everyone’s taste, but if you like church choral music, it’s an excellent example.
Invitation to pray
We each pray in our own way; some of the best advice I had was ‘Pray as you can, not as you can’t.’ So I offer an invitation to pray – not an instruction.
Hold before God your expectations and disappointments from the last year. Hold before him your hopes for tomorrow and tell him what one thing would make all the difference to you on Christmas Day this year. Ask him to give you peace over the next few days.
If you have any questions or feedback about this series, please feel free to contact me. I do my best, but can make mistakes, and my theology is always under construction.
All posts in the series can be found via the tag Xmas2020.
You can sign up to receive posts from Faith in Grey Places via email. I’ll be putting posts in this series here too, under the tag Xmas2020.