Christmas Eve Meditation
from John 2
Click here for the video: Meditation
Last Christmas… no, I won’t be singing the song.
Last Christmas, our family (more specifically, our daughter) received what was perhaps one of the most unique gifts we’ve ever seen given. Because our daughter was a practicing vegan, her friends thought it would be funny to gift her with chickens, complete with some bedding, a warming light, and a hand constructed coop. I don’t remember my high school friends really exchanging gifts, let alone giving anyone anything so elaborate. So, for the first month, the chicks lived in a laundry basket in our house, until they outgrew it and were hardy enough to endure New Mexico nights in their coop on our back patio. They quickly became full grown birds who enjoyed free-ranging in our back yard and nesting in the rosemary bush.
They also grew pretty vocal. They were hens, so there wasn’t any rooster crowing, but when one couldn’t see the other, they could raise something of a ruckus. I think that might have been what drew the attention of our neighborhood association. Sometime in the late spring we received a knock on our door. The two people in possession of unknown literature on our doorstep could have been offering any number of things, but it was the reps from our homeowner’s association with a fresh copy of the neighborhood covenant. Sure enough, our chickens were not up to code. I suppose if we wanted to have livestock or poultry on our property there are any number of places up and down the valley that could accommodate us.
But we didn’t even know that we wanted these chickens, they just sort of showed up. In the end we found a more hospitable home for our hens, Lany and Eden, but I was reminded of them and their first few weeks in the house as I revisited the familiar narrative of Jesus’ birth laid out for us by Luke.
Because the way we have come to read this story has moved far from the reality of Middle Eastern life and practice in which it occurred. It’s a reality in which having chickens, or other livestock in your house would have been the norm and not the exception. But first we need to back up. Because there is a mythology surrounding the pageantry that we’ve built up around this story that doesn’t quite reflect what is laid out in the two gospels that recount Jesus’ birth. Some of this is simply born of convenience.
We create a kind of mash-up of it all because it’s easier to fit all of it into a single nativity scene.
But when we do that, we end up telling the story in a way that just might miss the point of its being told in the first place.
In our version of the story, Mary and Joseph turn up in Bethlehem just as Mary is going into labor and the two of them are turned away from an inn that has no room for people like them. It makes for some pretty good drama, but chronologically it’s unlikely and culturally it would have been scandalous.
The whole reason for their being in Bethlehem is to register Joseph as a descendent of David, a son of Bethlehem. In a Palestinian culture that prides itself on hospitality, this would have opened any number of doors for the young man and his pregnant fiancé. You see, our whole way of hearing just what happens to this family depends on how we understand the word that gets translated ‘inn.’
The word Luke uses is not the same one that he’ll use later when relating a story that Jesus tells about a Samaritan who takes a beaten man to recover at an inn- a commercial establishment with an innkeeper who gets paid. In fact, if you’ll take another look at the reading, there is no mention of an innkeeper. That’s because the word we translate as ‘inn’ is more accurately the word used to describe a room for guests in a private home. And guess what, there’s a census on and plenty of extra bodies looking for space in sleepy little Bethlehem, so that room is full up.
So instead, when Mary goes into labor and needs to deliver her child, she ends up laying him in a manger. Over the years our conception of that manger has ranged from a cave to some kind of out building, like a stable. Only in your typical first-century Palestinian home, that isn’t where people kept their animals who might eat out of a manger. And this is what got me thinking about our chickens. Because in a typical home, you brought your animals into the house for the night- to protect them from predators, or keep them from wandering off or being stolen. Far from being sent away, this detail about a manger tells us that while there was no extra space in the guest room, they were still given shelter inside the house because that is where mangers are located.
Jesus and his family are welcomed into a simple home.
All of which makes sense, because as noted scholar Kenneth Bailey has observed, if the shepherds to whom this birth is announced were to have found a newborn with his mother and father in some drafty stable in the middle of the night, they would have taken them at once to their own homes. Instead the go home praising God for all that they had heard and seen. Not just the angels and their glorious announcement, but the babe himself, the anointed savior in a home like theirs, for people like them.
Maybe what Luke want us to know about Jesus is that this is who he is, who he has always been since the night he was born. He is for us and with us, as we are, where we are. He doesn’t need anything fancy to find a place in our homes and lives. Anything will do really. Jesus doesn’t come to the ideal lives and homes we think we have to create. He comes to the real ones, maybe even the ones we’re trying to hide, the ones that are messy and might even be filled with the animals. Because in the end none of that matters really. All that matters, is that we let him in.