December 20, 2009

This article will, no doubt, stir up a hornet's nest. I am here to tamper with a masterpiece, or, if you will, to share with you a rather different reading of Luke 2:1-7. I assure you that this is solidly grounded in the facts, but nowhere represented in Christmas carols and pageants. I must tell you that I have heard endless sermons on how there was "no room in the inn" and how it was typical of a cold, fallen world to cast the holy family and Jesus out into the cold, and so on, often preached with great fervor but producing no ferment at all.

We've heard it countless times before. We've all been inoculated with a slight case of Christmas, preventing us from getting the real thing, or in this case, from reading these texts in a more historical way. The problem with the Christmas-pageant version is, this is not at all likely to be what Luke intends to tell us in this much beloved and belabored Christmas tale.

When it came time for Mary to deliver the baby, the Greek of Luke's text says, "she wrapped him in cloth and laid him in a corn crib, as there was no room in the guest room." Yes, you heard me right. Luke does not say there was no room in the inn. Luke has a different Greek word for inn (pandeion), which he trots out in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The word he uses here (kataluma) is the very word he uses to describe the room in which Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples — the guest room of a house.

Archeology shows that houses in Bethlehem and its vicinity often had caves as the back of the house where they kept their prized ox or beast of burden, lest it be stolen. The guest room was in the front of the house, the animal shelter in the back. So it could be that Joseph and Mary had come too late to get the guest room, so the relatives did the best they could by putting them in the back of the house. Better yet, the old expression, "better use the back door lest someone see you coming" probably best describes what is taking place here.

Joseph, through the eyes of his kinsmen, was probably reduced to second-rate, as his family saw him as marrying an unfaithful fiancé who was carrying someone else's child. What an embarrassment to the family! "Stay in the cave out back" was most likely the mind-set of the family when Joseph and Mary came to stay for the census.

Or perhaps, seeing that Mary was close to labor, the family put the delivering mom in the already-unclean spot in the house. Many people overlook the ritual uncleanness of childbearing in this story, although Luke mentions it in 2:22, "when the time of their purification was up … "

Regardless of the reason for the stay in the cave, the background of the town was also significant. Bethlehem was a one-stoplight town at best. One could say Bethlehem was so small it was only there on Thursday Morning!  Furthermore, we don't have a shred of archaeological evidence that there ever was a wayfarer's inn in that little village in Jesus' day. All this silliness about 'no room at the Holiday Inn' for the holy family or the world giving Jesus the cold shoulder is not at all what Luke is talking about. It's a story about no inn in the room! It's a story about a family making do when more relatives than expected suddenly show up on the doorstep, or when the family was a bit too embarrassed at the familial situation between Mary and Joseph. It's a story most of us can relate to in one way or another. Jesus was born in his relative's home, in the place where they kept the most precious of their animals. One can well imagine the smell.

He was wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a "feeding trough" which was, in most cases, nothing other than a corn crib from which the prized ox or cattle ate. Here's the picture: No room in the family house, no baby crib, just a corn crib, not up front but in the back, no family and friends just the parents and the animals.

The question for us this day is: Do we still have the capacity to be surprised, enthralled, by this remarkable Christmas story? Do we still have the capacity to see all things new, once more? Can we make him room in our homes, even if the calendar is full, and the head count high on the home front?

As Angelus Silesius, a 17th-century poet, wrote:

Though Christ a thousand times
In Bethlehem be born,
If he's not born in thee
Thy soul is still forlorn."

 Let me tell you that if you let that Guest into your inner sanctum, even if you put him in the very back, he will surely take over and become the center of attention in due course.

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