Rethinking the Nativity
I am tired of the Christmas story.
Clarification: I’m tired of the way I keep hearing it and seeing it and reading it. Let’s think about the Christmas story, as seen in thousands of movies, children’s pageants, poems, novels, kid’s books every year:
Joseph is kind of a chump. He gets pushed around by some angels and then makes the totally irresponsible decision to drag a pregnant woman in her late third trimester to a town miles and miles away, on foot or maybe on a donkey. He plans this trip so poorly that they barely make it to Bethlehem on time and while Mary is (silently and peacefully) enduring labor pains, he is knocking on the doors of the local Sheraton and Holiday Inns. Apparently though Joseph is from this town, he no longer has any connections or relationship with people there so not only is he irresponsible, he must have been quite the jerk.
The streets are empty, no one sees this pregnant woman and harried man, no one cares until the hapless innkeeper reluctantly allows the couple to use his filthy, though warm and well-supplied with soft, cuddly hay, stable out back.
Mary gives birth, alone, the umbilical cord is magically cut, the placenta just disappears, though Joseph would have had no idea what to do with it and Mary would have been in no state to direct him. The baby has this funny glowing circle over his head, doesn’t cry at all, is wrapped in a dirty, torn blanket, and perhaps licked by the barn animals.
Some shepherds come and see the baby and the parents living in the filth and stink of an animal barn and leave rejoicing.
This makes for beautiful paintings, poetry, songs, and children’s plays. But does it fit the cultural norms? More importantly, is it what the Bible teaches?
How about this instead? (for more on this, read This Advent Season, A Look at the Real Setting)
Joseph, a man of courage and faith, realizes that his fiancee is in serious trouble. She could be stoned any day by the villagers because she is pregnant and not married. He is not required to bring Mary along to be counted in the census because she is a woman but he decides to tie his name to hers, tie his reputation to hers, and saves her life by taking her out of the village until the baby is born and emotions can simmer down. Who knows if they walked or rode donkeys but there is a distinct possibility that they rode in a cart. In any case, they arrived in Bethlehem before the day of Jesus’ birth. The Bible says: While they were there the time came for Mary to give birth. The Bible does not say: the moment they arrived they frantically pounded on doors.
He is wise, planned ahead, and is a hero. Not merely a background character, indistinguishable from shepherds in most nativity scenes.
It is hard to imagine that a working man of integrity and faith would have been rejected by relatives, no matter how extended. Not in this culture. In Djibouti people impose on extended relatives all the time, for long periods of time, cramped into small living spaces shared with livestock. No one would turn away a pregnant relative. No, he had family in Bethlehem and he went to the home of relatives where he and Mary rested from their journey and prepared for the birth of the baby.
The word ‘inn’ doesn’t refer to a Holiday Inn or Sheraton style building where a bed and meal can be purchased. It more likely refers to an upper room in a family home. Quite possibly Joseph’s relatives had other distant family in town for the census so the upper room was occupied. This meant the couple had to sleep downstairs in the open living space where animals were kept at night for safety and where they ate from troughs dug into the earth at one end of the room. They maybe slept on mats or piles of blankets, just as they would have upstairs. The room was warm and sheltered, probably filled with other traveling relatives.
Mary didn’t give birth alone. No place in the Bible is this written or implied. More likely she was surrounded by women. A midwife, Joseph’s relatives, neighbors. Shepherds came and found the child and his mother and left rejoicing because not only had they seen Grace and Mercy in the flesh, but they had seen a woman and child well-cared for and surrounded by caring women. Otherwise, they more likely would have praised God for that Grace and Mercy and then said: What are you doing here alone and cold?! Come with us, our women will care for you! No way would they have left a young mother and infant in that state and left rejoicing.
I don’t want to be too harsh, but maybe in the West, the first version, the version we are so used to, is acceptable because we can relate. A man unable to plan well for his pregnant fiancee. A woman in labor turned away, the needy ignored in the streets. Maybe we feel comfortable imagining that in ‘those’ places people only had dirty torn clothes to wrap around their babies, that in ‘those’ places mothers allow cows to lick their newborns. Maybe this, in some way, frees us from responsibility to act. If our Lord was born this way, it is not lowly or demeaning for other babies to be born alone, into a cold and unwelcoming world.
But in the East, in the culture and time in which Jesus was born, no way. Family, hospitality, food, community, these things are highly valued, no less in Jesus’ lifetime. A pregnant woman was not left in the street, especially when relatives were in town and even if she was pregnant out of wedlock. I could list off names and names of women I know in eastern cultures who have been pregnant outside of marriage and who have been neither stoned nor rejected from their families, but lovingly welcomed and cared for.
We want to make the birth of Jesus as hard as possible, as cold and lonely and desperate and painful as possible. Why? Is it because we can’t grasp the infinite coldness, loneliness, desperation, and pain of what the incarnation truly meant? We wrap it up in dirty clothes and stinking animals, in physical loneliness and fear. Is our feeble attempt at re-imagining the Christmas story our way of trying to understand, to put images and emotions to something so powerfully and deeply beyond our comprehension? To bring the miracle of God-made-flesh into our realm of understanding?
No matter what other pictures we paint to describe his birth nothing can make it harder than it was. Nothing can make it more loving than it was. Nothing can make it more miraculous than it was.
Jesus left heaven and was born a human baby, destined to die a human death.
Saying that Jesus was born into the hands of a skilled midwife or into a house filled with light and laughter and community takes nothing away from the glory of that night. It simply makes it more authentic.
*these thoughts stem from the incredible book: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey and I highly recommend this book. Highly.