Christmas Eve, 2014
Throughout this season of Advent, we have been exploring what we thought we knew about the birth of Jesus. We looked at details concerning Mary’s annunciation, Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s stunning news, the involvement of Elizabeth and Zachariah, Mary’s cousins, and the journey to Bethlehem. Tonight we will finish that exploration with one of the most familiar stories in the Bible – the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem. We have arrived at the pinnacle of the greatest story of the Christian faith – the birth of the son of God on earth.
When we look at the different accounts of Jesus’ birth noted in the gospels, we find various details that when put together give us as complete a picture as possible of this extraordinary event. Mary’s story is told in the gospel of Luke, including the part that I shared with you in story-telling format. We find that Mary was most likely a young girl from a place called Nazareth – a town that was barely a blip on the map. She was a humble maid called on to bare the son of God. She was considered to be married to Joseph, a humble carpenter. The couple has a bit of a rocky start to their relationship as Mary receives her surprise visit from the angel Gabriel that in effect changes any plans she and her family may have had for the perfect wedding. Yet we know Mary placed her faith in God and accepted the calling to be the barer of Jesus.
We discover that Mary’s fiancé Joseph was from a well-known but small town called Bethlehem. Joseph is noted as a righteous man – one who followed the law but also one who showed compassion and mercy to others. Joseph also received an angelic visit in a dream that provided him the reassurance he needed to become the earthly father of Jesus, the son of God.
As Mary’s time to give birth drew close, Joseph received word with the rest of the kingdom that he and Mary must make the 9-day journey back to Joseph’s home town. While a difficult journey during the best of times, with crowds of people traveling and Mary being in her ninth month of pregnancy, the journey was fraught with danger and risk. Yet they set out in faith that God would be with them.
Often our understanding of the events of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem comes from our traditions and the accounts passed down from generation to generation. One interesting twist to consider is this – we often talk about Jesus being born in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn. If Joseph was from Bethlehem, which 2 gospels confirm for us, then why did they need to go to an inn at all? Why not just stay at Joseph’s family’s home? When Joseph and Mary were engaged, Joseph would have returned to his hometown to begin preparing a home for his bride. When Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, their plans changed drastically. It appears Mary and Joseph ended up residing in Nazareth near Mary’s family. Yet Joseph’s family would still be in Bethlehem. So why did they go to the inn?
The answer may be in the interpretation of scripture. In the first century, homes were very basic, often with one great room/living area, one side room the adults used as sleeping quarters, and one upper room for the children, which they would give up and sleep in their parents’ room when guests were there; hence this upper room became a guest room. A stable would be either underground or close by in order to protect the animals – think of it as a modern-day garage. We know nothing about Joseph’s family but chances are he was not an only child. If his brothers and their families had to return to their hometown as well, chances are the one and only guest room was full. The Greek word for this guest room (kataluma) is the same word used to indicate an inn. It is very possible, that given the crowded conditions at Joseph’s family’s home, the couple adjourned to the stable for a little privacy as Mary was about to give birth.
That just throws a cog in the wheel of everything we assumed about the birth of Christ, doesn’t it? Regardless of the exact details of this event, it remains the turning point in human history. This pivotal event marks the time of Emmanuel – God with us. God revealed God’s incredible love for each of us in the person of a tiny, helpless baby being raised by two humble and possibly bewildered people. This same baby born in Bethlehem would preach a message of hope to those who felt hopeless, a message of love for those society had forgotten, and a message of joy to those who could find no reason to celebrate. This same Jesus became the light in a very dark world. The message of Christ’s love for us has truly changed the world.
So what? When you break down the stories of Jesus they are a bit far-fetched are they not? When we look around, are we not seeing many of the same discouraging and hateful behaviors, even during this joyous season? Do we not hear of wars and violence, hunger and fear? The region where this wondrous story of hope resides is one of the most war-torn regions in the world. How can we keep a light in our hearts when Christmas day is over?
Mother Teresa is well known in the Catholic church and around the world. Her message of hope and love to the poor and destitute is legendary. Here is one of her sayings:
Society will tell us to take care of ourselves, scratch and claw our way to the top and then we will be successful and happy. But true joy comes from knowing that Jesus, the light of the world, cares for us in every way. True joy comes when we experience God’s love for ourselves, and go about sharing that love through our words and actions. Mother Teresa’s message is a good one – it doesn’t matter how your gift of love is received, give anyway. In giving of ourselves, our joy returns ten-fold. Some of the most joyous events I have experienced here is in the gratitude from a lonely person who receives a visit to just talk and catch up and know he/she is not forgotten. It is in the gratitude of local families when we are able to present summer fun packs, or bags of food for their children to help them through the weekends. It is in the hospital rooms of those facing the end of their lives only to feel the love and peace of God surrounding them through their community of friends and loved ones.
Something special happens to us around Christmas time. We find it a little easier to toss a few coins in a red bucket manned by a bell ringer. We buy an extra toy since we are at the store anyway and place it in a special bin never to know how it will be received but that really doesn’t matter. We feel better for having shared a little with someone in need. As one movie put it, “we become the people we always hoped we would be.” Perhaps this will be the year that we keep that spirit of giving in us. Perhaps this is the year that we take notice of those around us, finding little ways to help out instead of just rushing to our next event, and truly share the light of Christ in the small but meaningful actions of everyday life. Kindness costs us nothing yet is a priceless gift. Give of yourself, and may God richly bless you with the joy of the season throughout the year. Amen.