Tomorrow is the first day of Advent and our journey towards Bethlehem with Mary and Joseph has begun. But where will we end up and who will we bring with us? Is it to a stable, or is into the family home. Do we travel alone or are we accompanied by friends and strangers. Our images of the destination shape our faith in ways we don’t even realize.
Lk 2:7 tells us: she (Mary) gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
According to New Testament theologian Kenneth Bailey in his wonderful book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Jesus was not born in a stable at all. . Middle Eastern cultures are known for their hospitality and Joseph was coming home with a new wife and an expected first child. The whole family was gathering, aunts and uncles, cousins and brothers and sisters. All of them coming home. Yes there was a census that brought them together but in a fun loving culture like this it would not have diminished the welcome or the excitement of a homecoming gathering. The expectation of a baby to be born in their midst would only have increased the excitement.
As Kenneth Bailey explains, the Greek word (katalyma or kataluma) translated as inn in some translations does not mean a commercial building with rooms for travelers. It’s a guest space, typically the upper room of a common village home as the NIV translation above tells us.
“A simple village home in the time of King David, up until the Second World War, in the Holy Land, had two rooms—one for guests, one for the family. The family room had an area, usually about four feet lower, for the family donkey, the family cow, and two or three sheep. They are brought in last thing at night and taken out and tied up in the courtyard first thing in the morning.
“Out of the stone floor of the living room, close to family animals, you dig mangers or make a small one out of wood for sheep. Jesus is clearly welcomed into a family home,” See the entire article here
It was to this simple village home that the shepherds and wise men alike came. Shepherds despised and regarded as unclean by their society, are visited by angels and invited to join the great home coming celebration that marks the coming of the child who will become the Messiah. That they were welcomed and not turned away from this home is remarkable. This is good news indeed for the outcast and the despised.
Then the wise men come, according to Bailey, Gentiles, rich men on camels, probably from Arabia. They too are unacceptable to the Jews. That the family let them in to see the baby is also amazing. Yet they come, and they are welcomed. They come not to the city of Jerusalem where the Jews thought God’s glory would shine, but to the child born in a manager around whom there is already a great light. The wise men come to find a new home, a new place of belonging that has beckoned to them across the world. This too is remarkable and good news for refugees from so many nations who long for a place to belong, a place to call home.
Bailey tells us that the birth stories of Jesus “de-Zionize” the Messianic traditions. Hopes and expectations for the city of Jerusalem are fulfilled in the birth of the child Jesus. (p54).
The new family, the community that will be formed around this child, does not look to the earthly Jerusalem as its home, but to the heavenly Jerusalem which will come down from heaven as a gift of God at the end of history. (Revelation 21:1-4). And it is to this home, a place with no more tears, or oppression or starvation that all of us are beckoned by the birth of Christ.
I love this imagery. Even in the birth of Jesus we are called towards a new family and a new home. There are family and friends and animals. And special invitations by angels for the despised and rejected, and a star to guide the strangers and those who seem far off. The new family and the home envisioned in the birth of Jesus is inclusive of all who accept God’s invitation.
This is indeed good news for refugees and those fleeing war and oppression today. It is good news for those who feel despised and rejected within our society. And it is good news for those of us who struggle to know how to respond.
As we begin our journey towards Bethlehem, let us not just follow the star but may we allow it to shape us into the people God wants us to be.
(This post is adapted from one I wrote a couple of years ago for the beginning of Advent. I so love the imagery Bailey creates for us that I like to share it each year.)