Christmas 2020

Part of the nature of being a Christian is that we are always telling our story as a complete narrative when we only have access to part of the story. The Gospels are the written tradition of our people about Jesus, and though they do give us the advantage of hearing the story from multiple perspectives, they don’t give us the complete story. There are a lot of things that have been lost from the written record. The traditions of our people add to the written record, but while traditions give a broad interpretation of events, they are usually very short on details. Over the years, thousands of Christmas pageants have made a big deal out of an adverbial clause that appears in a single Gospel: “because there was no room for them in the inn.” In the original text, the clause is given as an explanation of why the baby was laid in a manger. From that clause people have created a narrative of a city so full of guests that Mary and Jospeh were unable to obtain lodging in a public house. I’ve been at meetings planning Christmas pageants where the inn keeper, and sometimes the wife of the inn keeper, was determined to be an essential character in the proposed drama.

It is unlikely that there ever was an inn keeper. Public houses were very rare in 1st Century Bethlehem. And poor people like Mary and Joseph didn’t have money to stay in public houses. Furthermore, the Gospel tells us that the reason for their journey to Bethlehem was because “Jospeh was of the house and lineage of David.” They had family in Bethlehem. It is likely that they stayed with family and that the house of the family was full with other relatives - so full that there was no room in the guest room on the upper level of the house and the baby was born in the lower common room - the room where animals were kept when the weather was inclement.

We don’t think of a public house when the same word for “inn” is used to describe the upper room where Jesus shared the passover with his disciples later in the same Gospel. We think of the guest room in a private home.

There are other clues in the text. We know, for example that the shepherds were out keeping watch over their flocks by night. Communal shepherds stayed in the fields with the flocks when the weather allowed, but brought the flocks back to the owners, who each had a few animals, when the weather was bad. Since the shepherds were out that night we know that the animals weren’t at home. The manger wasn’t needed to feed animals at the moment Jesus was laid there.

As is often the case with our Scriptures, a careful and educated examination of the actual words of the text raises questions with tradition and preconceived notions.

Still there is much that we don’t know and can’t discover about the situation. We know that Jospeh was nervous about the pregnancy and offered to end the engagement before the baby was born. We know that Mary spent part of the pregnancy in the home of her kinswoman Elizabeth, who was also pregnant, though Elizabeth’s pregnancy would be considered in modern times to be “high risk” because of the age of the mother.

Not knowing the complete story with all of the feelings and private conversations is a common position for us in this life. We usually aren’t aware that a baby is coming into the lives of other people until a few months into the pregnancy. Except when we are directly involved, we hear the news after about one third of the waiting has passed. Most of the time our experience isn’t a full nine months, but closer to six months or less of being aware that there is a child coming. And the details of the conversations between the parents aren’t recorded in the baby book - they are left private as they should be.

From the bits and pieces of the story, we assemble a narrative in our heads and in our hearts about the birth of Jesus and we give thought to that narrative during Advent and Christmas each year. Like other stories that are told over and over again, we embellish and fill in details until our memory and the actual events aren’t quite the same. I know that first hand because sixty-five years ago yesterday a baby was born to my mother. He is my brother, but each of his siblings has a slightly different story of the events of that long-ago Christmas. I was only 2 1/2 years old, but I remember that we opened our Christmas presents in the day room at the hospital, which was across the alley from our house. In one version of the story we took the tree from our house over to the hospital, but that is very unlikely. More likely there was a decorated tree already at the hospital around which we gathered for those pictures. The attending doctor and nurse are no longer living to verify the details. Both of our parents are now gone. We have a few black and white snapshots and our memories. And we also have 65 years of storytelling to inform our memories. My brother, who claims to be the leading authority on the event, really was too young to remember details accurately.

It is nearly certain that Jesus’ day of birth was not December 25. The church didn’t place a date on the events until long after his death. Most of the gospel writers focused on other parts of the story and didn’t even tell the details of the birth. Matthew focuses on the visit of the Magi and Herod’s infanticide spurred by his fear of the rise of a new king. Mark doesn’t have a birth narrative at all. The Gospel of John uses poetry and alliteration to weave a story of meaning without need for details. Only Luke gives a few words to the birth event. The choice of late December as a date grew out of the cycle of teachings about Jesus that arose hundreds of years after his death. Ever since the time of Constantine in Rome, we have told the story of the events of Jesus life between Christmas and Easter and spent the rest of the year focusing on his teachings.

With little information, then, we celebrate each year and today is the day. At our house the telling of the story will be accompanied with play with several different nativity sets, collected over the span of many years. One day our grandchildren will read the texts for themselves and have even more questions than they do now. Perhaps we will be fortunate enough to discuss those questions when the arise. For now the story and the tradition underlie our family traditions and our grandchildren know it is a very special day.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!