December 24, 2020, What Really Happened?, Luke 2:1-14 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000228
In recent years, I’ve noticed that there’s been some discussion among theologians and historians about just exactly how things really happened on the first Christmas, when Caesar Augustus decided to take a census of his realm, for tax purposes, forcing Joseph and a very pregnant Mary to make the journey to Bethlehem. These new discussions challenge the traditional picture most of us have in our minds of these events, pictures we have gleaned over the course of our lives, from Christmas cards and creches, and the scores of Christmas pageants we’ve seen, featuring our children and grandchildren in bathrobes and cardboard wings. Having our traditional concepts challenged can be uncomfortable and disconcerting, but it can also be a good thing if it helps us to see a little more clearly into the real world our Lord chose to be born into.
The way all those pageants tell it, when Mary and Joseph came into Bethlehem, the first thing they did, reasonably enough, was to try to get a room at the Bethlehem Best Western, because Mary was feeling the beginnings of labor and she needed to get off her feet pretty quick. But when Joseph goes up to the reservation desk he finds out that every room in the inn is already booked. The manager says he’s very sorry, but he really can’t help. But wait, he says, for a very reduced price we could put you up in the stable out back. We’ll throw in some clean straw at no extra charge. And there in the stable, under the watchful eyes and warm breath of the cows and donkeys, with no one but Joseph to help her, Mary gives birth to her first-born child. And she swaddles her newborn boy in warm cloths and lays him in the feed box for a bed.
The new perspective on the Christmas story comes from a better understanding of the way people lived and thought in the middle east, way back in the beginning of the first century. To some extent, the culture is not so very different today, so we gain some insight just by looking at how people live in modern times. One big problem with our traditional scenario, say the scholars, is that we are viewing things from the perspective of our own culture, where a young couple in trouble is pretty much on their own, and every town has a hotel or two or three. But in first-century Palestine, things were very different. Hospitality and family obligation were sacred things. Coming into town for the census, Mary and Joseph wouldn’t have headed to the local hotel, even if there had been one. They would have known that there was a place for them with family. In fact, the Greek word we have traditionally translated as “inn” is actually the same word used for the upper room where Jesus ate his last supper with his disciples. The word is “kataluma”, and what it really means is a guest room, an upper room in a house where visitors would be welcomed and housed.
The problem, of course, was that Mary was in labor. In a guest room packed with out-of-town family there wouldn’t have been space for a woman giving birth. But she still wouldn’t have been sent out to the stable. We know that because in that time and place, as in many places in the middle east today, common people didn’t have stables. The animals, cows and donkeys and such, commonly lived along with the human residents of the house in a big room on the first floor of the house. The floor would have been earth, and the animals would have been fed in troughs dug into the ground to hold their hay or grain or turnips or whatever.
It is most likely, then, say the modern scholars, that Mary and Joseph’s extended family would have given Mary a little space down on the first floor away from the guests. And when her little boy was born, one of those feed troughs would have served as a little cradle to lay him in, lacking anything better. Also, it is very unlikely that Mary would have birthed her firstborn child all on her own or even with the help of her kindly but inexperienced husband. As in every culture everywhere, in all times, birthing was very much the provenance of the womenfolk, and there would certainly have been women around with experience in birthing babies. It is almost certain, then, that Mary brought Jesus into the world surrounded by aunties and other wise women, and it is pretty likely that Joseph was shuffled off to the upper room with the menfolk where he’d be out of the way. So, that gives us a new and different picture of just what it might have been like on the first Christmas Day: the God of the Universe, small and frail and unremarkable – except in the eyes of his mother and father – delivered straight into the bustling ordinariness of everyday life, with the smell of food being prepared, the warmth of the nearby cattle, and the clatter of many voices raised in conversation.
But while all that ordinariness was going on, Luke tells us that something very out-of-the ordinary was happening in the fields just outside of town. Jewish shepherds sitting around a fire, keeping half an eye out for predators or thieves while they swapped stories or shared a drink, suddenly found themselves in the presence of a creature so luminous and unearthly and majestic that they were scared out of their wits. This was no baby-faced cherub or girlish figure in a white robe. No pretty ornament on the top of your Christmas tree, no figurine on your knick-knack shelf, bears the slightest resemblance whatever to the heavenly personage that faced those bewildered shepherds. In the Bible, when people see an angel the universal reaction is terror – not because an angel is menacing or evil in any way, but just the opposite: because it reflects the pure glory of God, which is too good and too beautiful and too perfect for any human being to look on without being struck dumb with awe. There’s a very good reason why almost every angelic message begins something like this: “Don’t be afraid!”
But the terrifying angel of the Lord had joyful news for those shepherds, the most joyful news possible: that very night the Messiah that the people of Israel had been waiting for, waiting century upon century, at long last he had come into the world. In fact, he – the Savior of Israel – had been born that night in their own town. And more than that, the angel told them that they, those very shepherds, they could go and see him for themselves. You’ll know him, the angel said, when you see a newborn baby wrapped snugly in cloths and laid in a manger for a bed. And so, after a whole chorus of angels had appeared and sung their dazzling song of joy and delight, the shepherds ran off to Bethlehem to find the child of the angelic message. Luke doesn’t tell us how the shepherds found the place where Mary had laid her little boy to rest in a feed trough, except to tell us that they did find it. And overflowing with joy and sheer wonder, they told Mary what the angel had told them, and Luke tells us that Mary treasured all those words and pondered them in her heart. And then those shepherds spread the good news of the holy child’s birth to absolutely everyone who would listen, the good news that God had come to his people at last.
It was ten years ago today, that I celebrated my very first Mass in this church, at this altar. I was pretty nervous on that long-ago Christmas Eve. I was very aware of my bumbling imperfection in this holy place, where God feels very present. But the thing I remember most clearly about that night is that while I was consecrating the elements of bread and wine for communion, there was a very persistent fly buzzing around the chalice and threatening to fall in and drown itself. At the time I was pretty annoyed by that fly; first of all, because it was a real distraction to me when I was working so hard to not make any mistakes. But also, it seemed so wrong for anything as lowly and as unclean as a fly to insinuate itself into the holy rite of communion, and even possibly to drown itself in the consecrated wine, the most sacred blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, ten years later, I have a new perspective on that little fly. Now I can see the presence of that common, ordinary fly at the table of our Lord as a sign – a sign of the unexpected and joyful conjunction of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the natural and the supernatural, the normal and the divine – a sign of the good news that the angelic herald came to tell the shepherds on the first Christmas night 2,000 years ago. Because Mary’s baby boy that was born in Bethlehem that night was God himself, Emmanuel, God coming to dwell among us, God living as one of us.
He sees the fall of the sparrow. He gathers the children in his arms. He heals the sick and the lame and the blind. He calls the poor and the oppressed his brothers and sisters. He touches the leper. He is not ashamed to call us his family. The Creator of the Universe came to make his home with his creatures, even with the lowliest of his creatures, even with me, even with you – even with a fly. On that first Christmas night, the whole world was hallowed. From that day, everyone we meet, everything we touch, every task we put our hands to, is sacred, no matter how small or unimpressive or humble it might be, because he has made this whole world holy by his presence. A child has been born for us, a son given to us. On the first Christmas night, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come,
Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.