The story of Jesus’ birth is so well known that even Saturday Night Live can parody it, assuming that their audience will know the story. Twice-a-year church attenders, college students dragged to church while home on winter break, and our Jewish neighbors all know this story. Is there anything left to say about it, or can we just skip straight to the Christmas carols?
Read the scripture here.
The mental images are deeply familiar – the weary couple who have traveled a long way, the baby, the angel shining with the glory of God, and the bewildered but faithful shepherds, each playing their part in God’s story. We recreate the story in children’s pageants, carols and with crèche sets, and we know it almost by heart.
Rev. Ian Paul says that our mental picture is all wrong – he argues that we mis-translate the word kataluma in Luke 2.7. “Older versions translate this as ‘inn’…There is some reason for doing this; the word is used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) to translate a term for a public place of hospitality (eg in Ex 4.24 and 1 Samuel 9.22). And the etymology of the word is quite general. It comes from kataluo meaning to unloose or untie, that is, to unsaddle one’s horses and untie one’s pack. But some fairly decisive evidence in the opposite direction comes from its use elsewhere. It is the term for the private ‘upper’ room where Jesus and the disciples eat the ‘last supper’ (Mark 14.14 and Luke 22.11; Matthew does not mention the room). This is clearly a reception room in a private home.” There’s no room for the couple in this place where guests are lodged, so they are moved upstairs to the family’s private quarters, Paul suggests. He adds that it would be unlikely that the young couple would be left alone. “It would be unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members, even if they were not close relatives.” We can shift our mental picture from Mary and Joseph, all alone, to imagining them with family around them.
The shepherds never fail to fascinate. They experience something they have never seen before – an angel’s visit – and take it in so fully that they leave their work and head out of the fields to see the baby. I always wonder if they left one shepherd behind to watch the sheep. Did one person miss out on this life-changing experience? Or was there one shepherd who thought everyone else was crazy, and was more than willing to stay behind?
Luke clearly has a deep concern for the lowly and impoverished, but I also wonder if people at the edge of life have more ability to take in God’s presence because they’re not distracted by so many other things. If the angel had visited the chief rabbi, or the town elders, or the most prosperous merchants in town, I wonder if they would have been able to hear the same message. Or would the pressing needs of faith or business have kept them from hearing? Would they have needed to go and see the baby later, when everything else on their lists was done?
Luke does an interesting balancing act. He connects Jesus to the family of King David, who evokes the glory days of Israel’s past. He also connects him to the poor, the sorrowful and the outcasts, proclaiming that God’s good news is especially for them. His birth calls us back to God’s concern for all who are in need, and awakens awe in our lives again. The story is old, but amazement at God’s surprises is always new. The characters and the action are familiar. Waking up to the wonder of God’s determined presence in our world never grows old.
- If Jesus is born into a family setting, surrounded by concerned people, does that change our understanding of his birth? Do we see him, or his parents, differently?
- How did the shepherds find the courage to leave the fields and head into town to see something so unusual? The angel’s message is completely out of their frame of reference, unlike anything they have known before. How do they manage to make sense of it, and act on it? What combination of courage and ability to see something brand new is necessary for their faith – or ours?
- If God spoke to us today, would we be able, or willing, to drop everything and go see what God was doing? Or are we too busy for revelation? Or too weary, too disheartened, or too suspicious?
- How is Christmas new for you, or your congregation, this year? What new thing is God doing where you are? What are people hurrying to see?
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We’re eager to hear, and hope you’ll continue the conversation in the comments section. Christmas blessings!
Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church. Her greatest spiritual lessons come from being the parent of a teenager. She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City. The image above is The Nativity by Dr. He Qi, from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition.
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