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!