Not In A Stable

Let's start with this:

Mary didn't ride into town while having contractions, then deliver that night. She and Joseph were probably there for a few weeks.

And the young couple wasn't turned away from every local hotel.
Bethlehem wasn't even big enough to support a commercial "inn".

They were actually staying with Joseph's relatives.

Oh, and Mary didn't give birth in a barn, or under the stars.

And I'm afraid it wasn't winter. The shepherds came, but they weren't shivering shepherds.

You probably know, too, that the wise men weren't there the night Jesus was born, and that we don't know how many of them there were.

Ken Bailey's Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes is likely my favorite book of the decade. The very first chapter (which is available as a free sample here) is what opened my eyes to a whole new nativity scene.

Fluent in Arabic, Bailey has spent forty years living and teaching New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus. He studies ancient, medieval, and modern commentaries and translations in Semitic languages— Syriac, Hebrew/Aramaic, and Hebrew. Drawing upon his expertise in Middle Eastern culture and his study of these eastern commentaries and traditions, he paints a truer picture of the birth of the Messiah.

"No room at the inn"

In Luke 2, the Greek word (katalyma or kataluma) translated as inn does not mean a commercial building with rooms for travelers. It refers to the guest room of a personal house (in Luke 22:10-12, it is translated as “upper room,” whereas in the parable of the good Samaritan the Greek word for a commercial inn is pandocheion). Most village homes in Bethlehem had two rooms - one for guests, one for the family. The family room also had an area, several feet lower, where the family animals could be brought in for the night.

When Mary and Joseph arrived at their relative's home, others were already using the guest room. So Mary and Joseph stayed in the lower part of the family room, where the animals also stayed through the night.

Why is Bailey so sure they were staying with family?

I've never found a Western nativity scene that included cousins or aunties. But Middle Eastern cultures have always valued family and hospitality. Mary and Joseph were traveling to Joseph's ancestral home. He would naturally have had relatives there, and they would have welcomed him. “To turn away a descendant of David in ‘the City of David’ would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village,” Bailey writes in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Even if no one had room for them, they could have traveled just a little further to stay with Elizabeth and Zechariah.

"While they were there, the time came..."

Mary wasn't in labor when they arrived in Bethlehem. In the Greek, Bailey explains, Luke's text indicates that Mary spent the last stages of her pregnancy in Bethlehem. A literal translation might read, "While they were there, her days (plural) were fulfilled."

Jesus wasn't born in a barren, windswept stable in an unfriendly town where Mary labored afraid and nearly alone.

Jesus also wasn't born under a halo of fluffy winged angels who sang as Mary painlessly delivered a child while clean baby animals gazed adoringly at the manger.

Mary and Joseph spent the last weeks of pregnancy with their relatives in Bethlehem. Probably because of the census, both of the rooms in the house were full, so they stayed in the lower part of the house, where the animals spent the night. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born. God became man and was born into a family, a large, warm community of humble, broken people trying to care for each other. He cried and was washed, fed, and comforted, wrapped in a clean blanket and laid in a manger.

It's true. But isn't it also a better story? And one that will inform our family Christmas traditions, and even our decorating.

PS: Ken Bailey has also written a Christmas musical drama to reflect this more accurate telling of the Christmas story. If your church or family wants to check it out, it's available here.

(re-post from the archives)

the conflict of advent {guest post}

A few months after I moved to the tiny town of Upland, Jody Fernando invited me to her book club, and in the intelligent, opinionated, warm-hearted discussion there, I felt for the first time like maybe this place could be home. Jody moved to California last summer, but I continue to learn from her. I'm so happy to share her words with you today.

Christmas songs are supposed to be happy. Jingle bells ringing, happy people singing, red noses shining, and bringing good tidings - that’s the epitome of the Christmas spirit - right?  

In many moments, I share this joyful sentiment.  I love the wonder and anticipation of the season and how Advent invites us to pause and reflect.  But sometimes, simple acts like reading news of war or chatting honestly with a broken friend leave me relieved that sentiments like Henry Longfellow’s make it into the season too:

And in despair, I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song,
of peace on earth, good will to men."

Written near the end of the civil war after the tragic death of his wife and serious injury of his son, I can only imagine the grief that shook Longfellow’s heart.  "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays," he wrote the Christmas after his wife’s death. "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace."  Three years later, he penned the words to the beloved carol, I heard the bells on Christmas Day.



We might all be better for it if we walked through advent like this.  Certainly all of our hearts carry unmet longing and unresolved burdens, even through a seemingly joy-filled season. I fluctuate somewhere being parading my longings and burdens boldly before God and scrambling to cover them up so no one else can see my lack...

Perhaps Longfellow felt the same way that Christmas morning when he heard the bells ringing the old and familiar carols.  

...and wild and sweet, the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.

For even if the song of peace is sweet, it can still be wild, elusive, unpredictable and uncontrollable.  And even if good will to men runs wild, it can still hold an underlying sweetness, immeasurable pain interwoven with threads of hope and goodness. The sweetness of the season rings through warm moments, celebratory spirits, joy-filled children.  But the wildness is just as present, highlighting the very present conflict of unresolved tensions, global injustices, misplaced priorities, feelings of grief, and pressures of holiday obligations.  

These incongruous realities of advent prompt us to quiet our spirits and listen rather than to numb them with busyness, to seek hope through meaningful actions rather than chase happiness through meaningless objects. They beckon us to live quietly yet expectantly in a world of crashing noise. In the quietness, we can pray simple words like this:

May we return to the breath and the silence.
To the breath that gives us life,
To the silence where we hear God’s whispers.
May we weep for the brokenness of our souls,
And cry out against our distractedness.
May we return to the eternal God,
Whose love fills every fibre of our being.

Come, Lord Jesus.  We eagerly await your arrival, wild and sweet.

Jody Fernando sorts out the paradoxes of life on her blog, Between Worlds. She lives in Southern California where she enjoys walking her children to school, eating ethnic food with her husband, and teaching English to international students.

hearts, disaster, desire, time

Here are four posts I appreciated this week on preparing for Advent. Click through to read the posts in their entirety.

Prepare Our Hearts - Addie Zierman

"This year, I will watch as many sappy Christmas movies as possible and give myself two points for every former child-star from my youth that appears in a starring role. I’ll drink hot chocolate every night, screw the calories. I’ll choose only simple Christmas crafts to do; nothing that requires a “tutorial.” 
...When it all comes down to it, I think I’ve had too many years in a row of trying to conjure up the perfect Christmas. This year, I’ll settle for merry. I’ll settle for good, for less-than-picture perfect. I’ll settle for not-quite-how-it-was-supposed to be."

Preparing for Disaster - Ragan Sutterfield

"We who are ready to welcome this new kingdom of God should be like those small farmers who are learning how to plow with a mule or grow food without synthetic fertilizers, not as some abstract hobby, but as preparation for the world that will come. But how do we do this? We get some hints in our epistle reading where Paul prays, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” and “may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” 
Our task now is to gather and become communities of agape, outposts of the kingdom where we learn to love each other and move our lives ever more closely to the pattern of Christ. Our churches are where we start this work—calling each other to get off the couch of the world as it is and preparing for a world where God reigns in justice, love and goodness."

Advent is About Desire - James Martin, SJ

"Desire may also be difficult for some people to accept in their spiritual lives. One of my favorite books on Ignatian spirituality is The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed, written by Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin and Elizabeth Liebert, three women religious.  In his classic text, The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola repeatedly recommends praying for what “I want and desire.”  For example, a closer relationship with God.  Or a particular grace during a meditation period.  The three authors astutely note that this dynamic may present obstacles for some women. "Women may often feel that paying attention to their desires is somehow selfish and that they should not honor their desires if they are being truly generous with God."  The authors strongly encourage women to resist that tendency and to "notice" and "name" their desires.  To claim them as their own.  
Why all this emphasis on desire?  Because desire is a key way that God speaks to us, whether in Advent or the rest of the year.  Our holy desires are gifts from God."

"What if your story was somehow ordered by a larger Story?  What if you could relinquish the frantic need to master time, and relax into a more sacred rhythm?  What if this season of Advent could mark a renewal in your life, a renewal of your time?"

As I write everyday through Advent, sharing some of my thoughts and yours, I will be meditative, not instructive.  I'm not going to offer tips and tricks for doing Advent with kids.  I'm mostly just going to listen and reflect on advent in my own life. 

That said, here is a list of my favorite resources for Advent (affiliate link); here is a post I wrote two years ago about advent traditions in the family; here is a great resource  for preschoolers that I'll be playing with this year.

What are your favorite books or resources for Advent?  Please share!

approaching advent

This morning we woke up to a surprise snow - our second of the season, and just a light dusting, really, but neither of those factors made it any less exciting to a certain almost-four-year-old.  Before 8 am, she and I were snow-booted and tromping around the backyard.

“Mommy, I think this snow is trying to tell us that it’s almost snow-season,” she said, licking a handful of snow from a purple mitten.

The season of Advent begins this Sunday.  Since Thanksgiving fell on the earliest possible day this year, our Christmas season is the longest it can possibly be, and we have a week of breathing space between Thanksgiving and the first day of Advent. I needed it.

Over the last decade or more, I’ve tried to practice Advent, mostly unsuccessfully. Advent is supposed to be a season devoted to waiting for Christ to appear. To cultivating watchfulness, hope, and anticipation.  I think in my mind observing Advent looks like being alone in my parents’ living room at dusk, twinkle lights from the tree casting magical shadows, my mind in some silent meditative state contemplating Christ’s arrival.

Clearly, that state only happens for about five minutes a year, at most. It’s little wonder my practice of Advent has felt mostly unsuccessful.

I’ve tried Advent devotionals and reading regimens too, but my devotion always sputters out before the end of the season, and I find myself at the Christmas Eve service more focused on keeping hot wax off everyone’s fingers and fire out of everyone’s hair than on the little baby who is the light of the world.

This year, instead of seeking some zen state of meditative holiness, I’m going to do two things.  For one of them, I need your help.  I’m going to post every day during the season of Advent.  I’ll share some of my thoughts, but I’ll also share poems, songs, quotes, and images that speak of hopeful anticipation.  And I’d love to share some of your thoughts, if you’d like to write a guest post for me.

And secondly, I’m just going to be watching for signs of the kingdom breaking in.  Because at Advent, we’re anticipating Christ’s birth, which has already happened, and we’re also anticipating his return to earth, the full kingdom of God and its upside-down values transforming our lives. Like the powder that tells Rosie that snow-season is coming, these signs are everywhere, and this season I’m watching for them, focusing less on the “in sin and error pining,” and more on the “he appeared, and the soul felt its worth,” delighting in that the way my kid delights in the first signs of winter. Join me?

(PS: Today you can download Over the Rhine’s Christmas album free at Noisetrade!)