Saturday, January 30, 2010

Jesus and the Temple

It has not been a good week for posting, but I was determined to do so before it finished even if I have left it a bit late!  I am preaching tomorrow.  The readings are on the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which seems a little bizarre given that we have moved in the past few weeks to the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry.

Jesus’ relationship with the Temple is ambivalent.  He was presented in it by his parents receiving recognition from Simeon and Anna.  St Luke again records the one incident we have from Jesus’ childhood when he was taken to Jerusalem by his parents and causes them some panic by going missing only to be found by them sitting in the Temple.

The Synoptics only mention one visit of Jesus to Jerusalem: the one leading up to his death.  St John, however, records several and as I have argued previously this seems historically likely.  What St Luke actually tells us about the visit when Jesus was 12 is:

‘Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.  And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.’ (Luke 2:41-42)

‘Every year’ they went to Jerusalem and the visit at 12 was ‘as usual’.  This strongly suggests that Jesus was brought up to go to Jerusalem and surely this would not be something that he would stop when he was older.  St John tells us that after his first miracle in Cana and a visit to Capernaum (more of which in subsequent posts!), Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover where he ‘cleansed’ the Temple.

Scholars argue over this.  The Synoptics record this event, but put it at the end of his ministry, not the beginning.  They have to as this is the only time they record Jesus going there as an adult.  Some have argued that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice: once at the beginning and then again at the end of his ministry, but most don’t think this likely.  Most go with the Synoptics and argue that St John has put the event at the beginning for theological reasons.

One reason scholars have for locating this incident at the end of Jesus’ ministry is because of their understanding of what Jesus was doing when he turned over the tables and drove out the money changers.  For them this is a prophetic act pronouncing God’s judgement on the Temple and is a reason for Jesus’ arrest and subsequent crucifixion.  This doesn’t work so well if it happened at the beginning!

However, this doesn’t seem to be how either the Synoptics or John understand the event.  Yes, Jesus did speak of the Temple’s eventual destruction, but here he seems more concerned with its purification:

He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!"  His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me."  (John 2:16-17)

If concern for the Temple’s purity is his main concern, and I fail to see why those of us living 2,000 years after the event should have a better understanding of it than those who may even have been present at it, then it could well have occurred at the beginning of his ministry.  Whenever it happened, it shows that Jesus wasn’t anti the Temple as such.  It truly was his Father’s house and should be respected as such.  Jesus’ attitude is best explained by what St John tells us happened next.  After celebrating the Passover, Jesus spent some time in Judea effectively continuing the ministry of John, baptizing people - though as St John tells us, it was Jesus’ disciples who did the baptizing.  St John then makes a somewhat enigmatic statement:

‘Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’ - although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized - he left Judea and started back to Galilee.’ (John 4:1-3)

Quite why the Pharisees learning that Jesus was becoming popular should send him back to Galilee is not immediately clear.  Is it that he doesn’t want to undermine John?  Is it that he wants to avoid possible hostility from them?  Or is it that he realizes the time has come to begin his own distinctive ministry and emerge from the shadow of John?

Whatever, he sets off for Galilee where the Synoptics will pick up the story, but to get there he travels through Samaria.  From Jerusalem, in the south, to Galilee, in the north, would have been about a three day journey.  During it, he meets the Samaritan woman at the well and breaks all social convention by talking to her.  In the course of the conversation, the woman asks him a question over an issue that divided Jews and Samaritans:

‘The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’  Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’

This is very much what Paul argues in Romans.  The Jews were God’s people.  The Temple was God’s house.  Jerusalem was the Holy City.  But all that is going to change.  As a result of Jesus’ ministry, God will no longer be worshipped in special places, but in spirit and in truth.

This verse is uncomfortable reading for many like myself who minister in Churches that place heavy emphasis on special buildings and sacred spaces.  I don’t think there is any escaping that fact that the New Testament not only rejects Jerusalem and the Temple as being any longer special places of worship, but also rejects the idea of special places altogether.  The Temple is now the people.  We are God’s house not the building we meet in. 

It’s an idea we are all familiar with, but one we find hard to act upon.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Happy Saturday

I am having a break before continuing some preparation for Lent!  I know it might seem a little early, but I want to give details out of what we are going to be doing to people tomorrow.

Last year, I did a short series on the parables (for some details, see under the label Lent) and, at the risk of sounding boring, I thought I would do a second series this year.  Last year, I focused on the well-known parables (the Good Samaritan, the Sower, etc).  I thought it might be fun this year to look at some parables that often get a bit neglected - such as the one about the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14/Luke 14:15-24)  Oh, and has anyone any ideas why the poor guy who didn't have a proper wedding robe was thrown into outer darkness?!

Anyway, the series will be begin on Wednesday, February 24.  If you live in Hong Kong and want to join us you will get a warm welcome.  Drop me a line and I will give you more details.

I hope your weekend is good.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

From Nazareth to Capernaum

While Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea about 6 miles south-west of Jerusalem, he grew up in Nazareth in Galilee and was known by all as Jesus of Nazareth.  Interesting, then, is the fact that he seems not to have spent very much time there once he began his ministry.  Doubtless this is because of his conviction, recorded both in the Synoptics and John (Matthew 13:57, Mark 6:4, Luke 4:24 and John 4:44) that a prophet is not accepted by those from where he comes or as we might say ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.  This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 4:14-21) records a visit Jesus did make to Nazareth.  This is a visit that ends with the people there trying to kill him.

St Luke uses this passage to introduce the ministry of Jesus and its themes.  Probably St Luke felt it appropriate to begin his account of the ministry of Jesus with a story from where Jesus grew up.  St Luke himself, however, records that Jesus’ ministry was well under way before he went back to Nazareth and that the people of Nazareth had already heard about it.  Jesus says that they will doubtless say to him, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ (Luke 4:23)

Nazareth, in lower Galilee, is about 16 miles south-west of the Sea of Galilee, 9miles south of Cana, where he performed his first miracle, and about 25 miles from Capernaum on the north of the Sea of Galilee.  The mention of Capernaum is an important one for Jesus seems to have made both his home and base there once he embarked on his ministry.

Before discussing Capernaum, it is worth mentioning ‘The Mystery of the Two Missing Cities’!  The first is Sepphoris, a very significant city.  Nazareth was just 4 miles south of Sepphoris.  It would have been almost impossible for Jesus not to have gone there at some time in his life, and yet there is not a single mention of it in the New Testament.  The second missing city is Tiberias, effectively the main city of Galilee.  St John tells us that the Sea of Galilee was also known as the Sea of Tiberias (John 6:1) and mentions an occasion that some boats came from Tiberias with people looking for Jesus (John 6:23).  But it is only in St John’s Gospel that Tiberias is even mentioned and Jesus is never recorded as having gone there himself.

The reasons for this seemingly deliberate avoidance by Jesus of even talking about these cities, let alone visiting them are complex.  Tiberias was built on graves, which made it unclean for Jews, so that may be part of the explanation when considering Tiberias.  Sepphoris is much harder to explain.  Whatever the reason, Jesus avoided the two biggest population centres in Galilee although, given the relative closeness of places in the region, doubtless people from each went to hear Jesus as we know, from John, they at least did from Tiberias.  What they thought about Jesus’ refusal to go there personally we can only guess.

So why Capernaum?  It was certainly conveniently placed as a base for Jesus’ ministry around the Lake and its villages, and it was just 9 miles from Tiberias.  Perhaps more important was that this was where some of his earliest disciples seem to have worked and lived. 

St John tells us that Andrew and his brother Peter, who were fishermen, together with Philip were from Bethsaida.  The location of Bethsaida is not absolutely certain, but it was probably a place in Galilee about 2.5miles from Capernaum going north-east around the Lake.  By the time of the ministry of Jesus, however, Peter and Andrew were certainly living in Capernaum.  St Mark tells us that after Jesus had preached in the synagogue in Capernaum, he entered the house of ‘Peter and Andrew’ (Mark 1:21) where apparently Peter’s mother-in-law also lived and presumably Peter’s wife!  Again, St Mark tells us that when they entered the house they discovered Peter’s mother-in-law ill in bed with a fever (Mark 1:30)

The fact that James and John, who were also fishermen, are associated so closely with Peter and Andrew (Mark 1:19) and with this visit to Peter’s house (Mark 1:29) may suggest that they too lived in Capernaum.  There is some suggestion that Jesus rather than simply staying at Capernaum in St Peter’s house may have actually moved his own family there as well.  I will talk about family next!  

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Visiting Israel

For many years, I resisted the temptation to visit Israel.  I do not know why.  As a young man, I wasn’t particularly interested in travel so that was doubtless part of it, but by no means all.  I was, perhaps, also reacting to the rather romantic view of the ‘Holy Land’ that many I knew who had been there seemed to have of it, talking always about going on pilgrimage rather than on holiday.  Whatever, my first visit was in 1998, coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel.  I went only after some heavy arm twisting by two dear friends in my Church at Banchory.

Knowing Israel well themselves and having family there, they were convinced that any self-respecting Christian minister should visit there.  They were right and I was wrong.  Spectacularly wrong!  I had only been there a few days to realize what a difference being there made to everything.  Subsequently, I was to return many times and I now get withdrawal symptoms if I haven’t been for a while.

It is not that I think Jerusalem is a holy city in the way it was before the coming of Jesus - although I do think it is still a significant city.  Nor is it that Jerusalem and Israel still look as they did in Jesus’ time.  I am afraid that unless you have been there you won’t get it, but part of it is perspective: getting a feel for distance, geography, and landscape.

Galilee provides a very good example of what I mean.  I will never forget my reaction seeing the Sea of Galilee for the first time.  It was one of utter amazement at how small it was.  Rather like a large Scottish loch!  I had been brought up with the word Sea of Galilee in my mind and sub-consciously imagined a much bigger lake than it is and not one that you could drive around in a few hours!  It is in fact about 13 miles long and 7.5 miles wide with a circumference of about 32 miles.

Descriptions in the Bible of places using words such as cities, towns, villages, mountains, etc also took on a new meaning.  Capernaum is so small.  Jerusalem in the time of Jesus you could walk around in an afternoon.  I did so.  Even things like population came in to focus.  A place like Capernaum would have had only a population of 2,000 or so; Nazareth probably less.

Does it matter?  Well yes, I think it does.  We need reminding that the world of Jesus was a real and not a pretend one.  I recently read one scholar who, commenting on a passage in St John’s Gospel, said these sort of things happened in ‘John’s story world’.  Now I know what he means and this is a scholar who I know believes that Jesus was very much a real person.  Nevertheless, we can let the world of Jesus become something like a Narnia or Middle-earth, that is, an imaginary kingdom rather than a historical one.  This, I think, is how some scholars really do see the world of the Bible: something created by the Biblical writers themselves and not a real place. 

The trouble is only imaginary things can happen in imaginary worlds!

Monday, January 18, 2010

It's Monday morning and I am picking up all the bits and pieces from the weekend.  At long last the building work that we have been engaged with here at Christ Church is coming to completion.  The hardest thing is getting the finishing touches completed.  It can take as long to get the builders to come back to fix a window that won't open as it did to arrange the project in the first place, but I am beginning to look forward to life without builders - for a  short while at least!

The First Phase of Jesus' Ministry

All the Gospel writers are agreed that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.  What is not totally clear is what the relationship was between them.  The general understanding is that Jesus turned up at the Jordan, was baptized by John, and then got on with his own ministry.  An impression, it has to be said, that is reinforced by the way the Gospel writers present it.  That it is more complicated than that is suggested by a closer reading of the Gospels.

Firstly, St Luke tells us that there was a family relationship between Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:36).  We don't know exactly what the relationship was, but if Mary did stay with Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56), it at least suggests they were on reasonably close terms.  Did Jesus and John meet as they were growing up?

Secondly, the Synoptics give the impression, at first sight, that Jesus originally called his disciples by the Sea of Galilee, meeting them for the first time as they tended to their nets (Mark 1:16-20).  St John, however, tells us that Andrew and another unnamed disciple were originally disciples of John the Baptist.  There is the suggestion that Peter and Philip are also, and perhaps Nathaniel as well. (John 1:35-45)

The Synoptic Gospels begin their account of Jesus' ministry in Galilee, basically after John had been arrested.  St John, however, suggests that there was a period of ministry before this, which certainly included a visit to Cana and Capernaum in Galilee, but also involved time spent in Jerusalem and Judea as well.

This earlier period of ministry saw Jesus continuing John's ministry by baptizing people in the Judean countryside while John was baptizing people at Aenon near Salim, although as St John tells us it was Jesus' disciples who baptized rather than John (John 3:22-24).  This is what you would expect if they had previously been disciples of John assisting him in his baptism of people.  This should not seem strange.  Jesus, by being baptized by John, identified himself both with John's ministry and with John's practice of baptizing people.  It is only when he begins to overtake John in popularity that Jesus moves back to Galilee to begin his own distinctive ministry. (John 4:1-3)

St John tells us: 'When he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the festival; for they too had gone to the festival.  Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine ...' (John 4:45-46)  This then would be where the Synoptics take up the story.

It is impossible to be too neat and precise about the order of events and no doubt the Evangelists were more concerned to communicate the truth about Jesus than to give a precise chronology.  Nevertheless, if we take St John as giving accurate historical information, then we get the following impression of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, which might even be called the Baptizing Phase!

1.  Jesus who knows John the Baptist and agrees with his message and ministry identifies with it by being baptized himself.

2.  Some of John's disciples join Jesus and they go to Cana of Galilee where one of them, Nathaniel, comes from (John 21:2).  At a wedding there with his mother, Jesus performs his first miracle.

3.  After the wedding, Jesus, his mother, brothers and disciples go to Capernaum before Jesus sets off for the Passover in Jerusalem.

4.  After the Passover in Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples continue John's ministry of baptizing in the Judean countryside while John baptized further north, at Aenon near the Sea of Galilee.

5.  When his ministry gains attention and popularity, Jesus moves back to Galilee.  It is then at this point that the Synoptics take up the story.

The reading for this coming Sunday in St Luke's Gospel gives an account of some of what happened during the following few months in Galilee.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I must confess to being a bit scared by the speed at which this year is already disappearing!  Meetings are coming back into fashion after a temporary lull over Christmas.  This will be the last post for this week as a consequence so have a good weekend when it comes!

I will be presenting prizes at a school sports day on Saturday.  I always think it a bit ironic when I do this sort of thing given how much I detested taking part in sport when I was at school.  My most vivid memory was getting stuck on the last obstacle in the obstacle race and getting a cheer when I eventually did get over it.  My only success was in the three-legged race ...  Not a tale of sporting prowess I am afraid.  I did, however, make it into the School chess team!

Trying to Understand the Ministry of Jesus

St John tells us that Jesus' first miracle took place in Cana of Galilee.  Cana was probably a place about 9 miles north of Nazareth.  Nathaniel who becomes a disciple was from there.  Quite why he thought that nothing good could come out of Nazareth when it was so near is an interesting question!

I have just read an article by Richard Bauckham, a scholar I much respect, arguing that St John's Gospel amongst other things was originally written with those in mind who may had already read St Mark's Gospel.  It is something I have felt myself for some while, but never really followed up on.

As is well-known, the first three Gospels, the so-called synoptic Gospels, focus on Jesus' ministry in Galilee apart, of course, for the events in Jerusalem leading to his death.  St John records Jesus also ministering in Jerusalem and making relatively frequent visits there.  Scholars are rather sceptical about the value of St John's Gospel historically, so much so, that even the more conservative leave it out of consideration when writing about the life and ministry of Jesus.  This results in a very Galilean focused account.

St John's Gospel, however, while ackowledging quite clearly that Jesus had a significant ministry in Galilee, even performing his first miracle there, fills in the gaps by telling us about the Jerusalem and Judean ministry.  If this is historically based then it means that many, if not most accounts of the life of Jesus are somewhat imbalanced.  It is notoriously difficult to piece together the events in the life of our Lord to create anything like a diary of events.  The Gospels are not those sort of documents.  However, it is worth thinking about how the ministry of our Lord took shape.

Given that Jesus' teaching focused on the coming Kingdom of God, that he himself was a good Jew, and believed that he had a message for all Israel, how likely then is it that he would have avoided going to Jerusalem and Judea during his ministry?  Did he really only turn up there at the end of it for just a few days?  It seems improbable to say the least.  St Luke tells us that Jesus' parents went every year to Jerusalem for the Passover (Luke 2:41)  This would be true of many Galilean Jews.  Was Jesus really so different?  Even in the synoptics there are hints that Jesus was not in fact such a stranger to Jerusalem.  How did he know the owners of the donkey he borrowed to ride in to Jerusalem and of the Upper Room in which he celebrated the Last Supper?

St John tells us of Jesus that, 'When he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the festival; for they too had gone to the festival.'  (John 4:45)  The typical view of Jesus is that people in Jerusalem wanted to hear him, when he eventually came from Galilee to Jerusalem at the end of his ministry, because his reputation had gone before him.  If St John is right, then it is all a little more complicated than that and part of St John's aim in his Gospel is to show this to those who only know the synoptic tradition.

Of course, if St John is right, it raises the interesting question of why the first three Gospels focus so exclusively on Jesus in Galilee.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mary as a Source for the Gospels

I am only preaching at the 8.00am service this week so I just have a short sermon to prepare.  I am, however, interested in the reference to Jesus' mother in the Gospel reading.

As will be known, many scholars are very sceptical about the historical value of the Gospels and so treat them more as novels or novellas, that is, as fictional stories.  It is true that the stories that may contain historical data, after all, novels do contain historical data whether they were written by Agatha Christie or Salman Rushdie.  They also, however, contain events and characters invented by the author so, too, to a greater or lesser degree, it is argued, do the Gospels.  Some scholars think the Gospels contain only a little invention; some think they contain a lot.  As all scholars have to work in a mixed ideological and intellectual environment so even those who are more conservative have to take on board the scepticism of the more cynical.

This means that the Gospels themselves are seldom taken at face value by many scholars and the sort of questions scholars generally deal with are those questions of interest to other scholars and not those of interest to those outside the scholarly community. Scholars will speculate for hours on such things as supposed sources behind the Gospels and the nature of the communities for whom they were written, but will often rule out of order speculation which may arise from accepting the Gospels as essentially historically accurate.  This, I think, often makes the Gospels seem little more than interesting historical novels, in much the same way as I have been arguing that the typical presentation of the Nativity makes it seem no more than a romantic fairy story.

For example, a hypothetical source called Q is believed by many scholars to have been used by Matthew and Luke in the compiling of their Gospels.  It may well have been, we can't know for sure as Q is only a hypothesis.  Not a single copy of it exists anywhere.  And yet scholars will write books and dissertations on the theology of Q, the community which produced Q, the Christology of Q, the history of Q, the different versions of Q and so on.  Not bad when we don't even know what was in Q even if it did exist.

A speculative question I personally would like to ask is to do with the role, if any, people such as Mary and the Lord's family played as sources for the Gospels.  Now I realize that many would see this sort of question as being more than a little naive, belonging to the Sunday School rather than the Academy.  But given that we know from several sources that James, the brother of our Lord was the leader of the Church in Jerusalem after Jesus' death (from Luke in Acts, from Paul, and from the Jewish historian Josephus), it would seem at least possible that they played some role in the preservation of stories about Jesus.  I mean wouldn't people ask James, 'What was your brother like?'

We also know from Paul that the other 'brothers of the Lord' played a missionary role in the early Church: a role that was even familiar to people as far away from Palestine as Gentile Christians in Corinth (1 Corinthians 9:5).  Wouldn't people they spoke to ask them about their 'brother'?  And surely they would have stories ready to repeat?  They would be pretty useless missionaries if they didn't.

And then what about Mary herself?  Luke records her as having been present in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost.  (By the way: 'Upper Room' in Greek is the same the word in Luke that is often translated 'inn'!  See the previous post.)  According to John's Gospel, the beloved disciple whose testimony the Gospel claims as the basis for the Gospel, is entrusted with the care of Mary by our Lord as he hung on the Cross: 'Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.' (John 19:27)

Mary then is identified as the mother of both the person the Church worshipped as well as of the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and also as a sort of surrogate mother to the beloved disciple.   Surely if Mary was so closely associated with the beginning of the Church, then wouldn't people in the Church have asked her about her son?

Because the Church became so successful among Gentiles outside of Palestine, we have only a limited knowledge of what went on in Palestine.  However, it is, of course, Palestine where Jesus actually ministered and where the stories about him were first preserved.  It defies belief that the family of Jesus, who went on to have such a prominent role as leaders of the Church, would not have had a role to play as sources for those who wanted to write an account of their brother or son.

Personally, I find the idea that Mary was a source for the Gospel accounts much more convincing than that of the imaginary Q.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Baptism of Christ

Yesterday, in the Liturgical Calendar, it was the 'Baptism of Christ'.  I commented in my sermon on how strange it seemed to be moving from the birth of Jesus to the Baptism of Jesus after only just over two weeks.  It is, of course, made somewhat inevitable because of the way the Gospels tell us nothing about the life of our Lord after his birth until he begins his ministry at the age of about 30.  Apart, that is, from one brief incident recorded by Luke when Jesus is in the temple at the age of 12 (Luke 2:41-52).

This makes the words of the Voice from heaven at Jesus baptism all the more intriguing: 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.' (Luke 3:22)  To put it in a very human way: what was it about Jesus that the Voice was pleased with?  The intrigue deepens when we read on in Luke to the beginning of Jesus' ministry.  Luke records an incident at the synagogue in Nazareth: 'When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.' (Luke 3:16)  Jesus claims that words from a prophecy of Isaiah about One who will be anointed by God apply to him.

The reaction of those listening to him is interesting.  Luke tells us they are amazed.  They ask, 'Isn't this Joseph's son?'  In other words these people who had known Jesus for most of his life are amazed both by what he says and the way he says it.  Nothing about him and their knowledge of him had prepared them for this.  Mark puts it more starkly.  The people ask: ' "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.'

Presumably, however, Jesus had had some understanding of what his role and mission was to be while he was growing up and before his baptism.  Luke tells us Jesus knew at the age of 12 that he should be about his father's business!  Is it partly, at least, Jesus' willingness to keep silent about his identity and mission and live an ordinary life until his baptism that the Voice is pleased with?

I realize the speculative nature of these questions, but it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that Jesus had lived for 30 years already before he began his 3 year ministry.  This coming week the reading is about the wedding at Cana of Galilee, where it is Jesus' mother who encourages him to do something about the shortage of wine.  Jesus' identity may have been hidden to most people in Nazareth as he was growing up.  Apparently, not, however, to his mother!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Happy New Year!

Everything is getting back to normal here now with the start of term for all our schools.  For those of you returning to work today after the festive break, I hope it doesn't come as too much of a shock!

The Birth of Jesus

I am preparing for this coming Sunday's sermon and can't believe we are on to the baptism of Christ already.  I think it is a real shame that liturgically we  move on so quickly from what happened after Jesus was born to his ministry.  We know about the shepherds AND their sheep (let the reader understand!)  We also think we know about the Magi and their gifts.  We often, however, miss the fact that Jesus was circumcised 8 days after his birth (Luke 2:21) and that Mary and Joseph went to the temple in Jerusalem (not too far away) 33 days after his birth 'according to the Law of Moses' (Levticus 12, Luke 2:22) taking Jesus with them.  And, of course, the fact that Herod has all children under two years old murdered 'according to the time that he had learned from the wise men' (Matthew 2:16), suggests we do not know the diary of events as well as sometimes we think.

The chances are that Mary and Joseph stayed on in Bethlehem for some considerable time after Jesus' birth.  This means that, contrary to most nativity scenes, the shepherds and Magi are unlikely ever to have met!  It also suggests that Mary and Joseph were able to secure accommodation in Bethlehem.  Surely they did not live in a stable until the time of Mary's purification a month after Jesus' birth?  Matthew tells us that the star led the Magi to the 'place where the child was' (Matthew 2:9).  He continues describing them 'entering the house' (Matthew 2:11).     Romantic though it undoubtedly is to have the Magi in the stable, there is no basis for it in the text.

This raises the question of where Mary and Joseph would have stayed.  Here I confess to a failure of nerve.  I have long felt that the story of Jesus even being born in a stable is just plain wrong.  I don't believe it is what the Gospels ever say.  I remember lecturing on this over twenty years ago, but have refrained from preaching on it for not wanting to spoil people's Christmas and, in any case, I don't think it is an essential issue when it comes to explaining the meaning of Christmas.

The point, however, is that Mary and Joseph went to their 'own town' (Luke 2:3) to be registered.  Wouldn't it be just a little strange if they knew no-one in the city?  And did they get so little warning of their journey that they were unable to plan ahead?  The typical nativity play has Mary and Joseph turning up in Bethlehem on the night of Jesus' birth looking for a place to stay.  It works in the nativity play, but in real life?

Look again at what St Luke actually says: 'He (Joseph) went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.'  (Luke 2:5-6)  'While they were there', notice!  Not, 'on the night they arrived'.  The Greek word, often translated 'inn', is better translated simply 'guest room'.  Families in Bethlehem would have lived in small houses and the animals would have been kept in the house at night with a manger built in to feed them!

What St Luke is telling us is that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem some time ahead of the due date for the birth of their baby, stayed in a house that was crowded, and that when the time came for the baby to be born - because the house was full - Mary gave birth to her son in the main part of the house and not in a special room.  The shepherds then visit having been told that the fact that the baby is in a manger will be a 'sign to them' (Luke 2:12)  Why should the baby being in manger be a sign?  It is a sign because God chose a humble and ordinary place for his Son to be born, not a palace.  The shepherds could go there with confidence: they could be sure they would be allowed in!

There would, then, be no difficulty for the Holy Family to stay on in Bethlehem for quite some time as they had already found friendly accommodation.  Sadly, some time in the next two years, after the visit of mysterious strangers, they had to flea for their lives as political refugees to Egypt.  Interestingly, after Herod's death and the coast becomes clear for Mary and Joseph together with their child to return to Israel, they evidently first thought to go back to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:22).  However, Joseph is worried about the person now ruling over Judea and so goes to Nazareth in Galilee instead (Matthew 2:23, Luke 2:39).

The Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus are by nature somewhat fragmentary and we are left to piece them together in order to get a fuller picture.  Inevitably, we need some imagination to do this and there is much that we do not know, which, if we were to know, would change the picture.  The least we can do, however, is to make sure we listen carefully to what we are told before making our re-constructions.

The traditional account of the Nativity conveys the message of Christmas and is not to be despised.  Nevertheless, I wonder what reflection on what the Gospels actually say would produce by way of plays and preaching!