Saturday, December 28, 2019

Surprising Nativity

I love Nativity sets. My family knows this and has given me several over the years. I treasure them and some I keep out all year. I have a favorite set that I call the “chubby nativity” and another the “tall nativity.” There’s something heartwarming about those little figures representing the people who surrounded Jesus when he became a person because he loved us so much.

Recently I learned something surprising about that familiar nativity scene. I already knew that tradition had taken some liberties with the typical Nativity scene -- the wise men came later, not the night of Christ’s birth. I knew sometimes the family’s location was called a cave rather than a stable. But now I read that the whole story is different, or at least it certainly seems so.

I read books and other writing by Sarah Bessey and in her most recent newsletter she wrote about a “deconstruction” of the nativity story, as described by the theologian Kenneth E. Bailey in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Bailey “lived and worked in the Middle East for more than forty years while studying theology and scripture.” As Bessey writes, it turns out the Christmas story is even more beautiful than we thought.
For starters, Jesus wasn't born in a barn. Middle Eastern homes of that time did not have the stable for the animals separate from the home at all. Instead, the home was usually made of two rooms: one for the family and the animals and another one at the back or on the roof for the guests. Joseph wasn't turned away from a hotel; he was told that the guest room was already taken. Even there the text itself has been misinterpreted - it's not that there was no room at "the inn" as we understand a bed and breakfast or a hotel but rather the word is "a place to stay" meaning a guest room as part of an actual home. 
So the story is actually one of hospitality - the place where Mary and Joseph stayed was not a guest room but an actual family room. They were welcomed into the family's quarters. They weren't even in the guest room but in the main room of the home.
In addition, Mary and Joseph were not alone in their journey. They were part of a caravan, “likely part of a travelling community of family members all headed to a place ready to welcome them for the census.....They were well known, well respected and likely well loved.” This reminded me of the story when Jesus was a young boy and they were traveling with a bunch of others -- they didn’t miss Jesus for a day because they thought he was with others (Luke 2:41-52).

Bessey relates that Mary was also not alone at the birth.
She was almost certainly and absolutely attended by skilled and present women, likely even community midwives...She was in a warm home, surrounded by women who had walked the road ahead of her, who were able to care for her.
Is this surprising to you, as it was to me? I like what Bessey writes, “The incarnation is the miracle: 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.”

Whenever I learn or imagine something that makes Jesus more human, it fills me with wonder again, that he would become a little human being when he is this enormous, awesome, unimaginable God. Praise God for his incredible love.
What I call the "chubby nativity"
The "tall nativity"

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