By Kass Unger
Reflections relating to Matthew 1:18-25.
While the primary focus of Christmas is the birth of Christ, or at least that is the reason behind this festive season, the advent story really has very little mention of the actual birth of Jesus. You would think there would be a better record for the birth of someone that was going to change the world as it was known, someone that was Emmanuel, God coming in flesh and blood and living amongst human kind. But the truth is there is very little information recorded on the birth of Christ. The little that is in the story is focused more on the announcements to Mary, or Elizabeth, and the responses of their partners to the news of their impending parenthood. There is the heavenly announcement to some shepherds, and the journey of three wise men and the fear and thus persecution of King Herold.
There is a lot of information about the Christmas story that I have learnt over the years, that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible at all. Rather they have been created through artistic creativity and images on Christmas cards, in carols and cultural assumptions which would almost have us swearing that it was written right there in Matthew or Luke.
Now I don’t want to destroy Christmas for the children, or even the adults, but we will call this section of my message, ‘busting Christmas wide open’ and look at what we know about the birth of Christ that is not actually in the Christmas story. Let’s start with the fact that every preschool play has been misleading us. There was no innkeeper and for that matter, no petting zoo. I think the two factors have always been tied together. If there was no room in the inn, and Jesus was placed in the manger this must mean that they were sent out into the barn and thus if they were in the barn they must be surrounded by all sorts of animals. However if we take a quick moment to look at some ancient near eastern architecture , and yes this picture is from a children’s book and yes, I have previously learnt that children’s stories don’t always give an adequate representation of historical events. Who was to know that Disney’s Pocahontas should not be used as a historical account of the colonization of America? However, this floor plan, would not have been far off. Here the manger is inside the home, indented in the floor above where the animals slept, but next to the main dwelling space.
It is believed that the innkeeper that sent them away came from the one line in Luke 2:7 “and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in the manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” It is believed that this confusion stems from the translation of the word inn. The only other time the Greek word ‘kataluma’ is used in the bible is to describe the meeting place of the last super, where on this occasion it is referred to as the upper room or guest room. So if we look back to our floor plan, it is much more likely that there was no room in the top room of guest room and thus Jesus was born in the kitchen or where the family slept. Christmas illusion shattered, no stable, no straw covering every surface of our scene, and no farm animals, surrounding our new born baby Jesus.
On the front of many a Christmas card, there are three wise men, beautifully dressed, wearing crowns, dismounting from camels, to present presents to the baby in the manger. It is important to note that the wise men were Magi, not kings. So there would have been no crowns and no fine dressings. They were scruffy men who studied astrology and magic and had travelled following a star for years.
Now, I know how unpleasant I smell after sitting on board an airplane for 30 odd hours. They were traveling by camel, they would have been dusty and dirty and smelt much like those camels. Their journey was long, and thus they may well not have met a new born baby but, a small toddler running around. Hence why Herold had all children under two killed. The nativity story is not the tale of one night, but numerous years.
There is a lot that we don’t know about Jesus’ birth, some that has been creatively embellished from those originally created stories in the gospel. So let’s return from ‘busting Christmas wide open’ to examine what is before us.
Matthew is written with a post Easter perspective, and thus the infancy story is part of the whole Christ event. This child would grow to be an incredible man, for the way that he challenged the societal standards of oppression and persecution, replacing them with acceptance and compassion for those that were marginalized. He would grow to teach the love and heart of God over the letter of the law. A theme which is reflected in this very first introduction.
Joseph is described as being righteous. In first century culture, being righteous translates to ‘upheld the law.’ Especially religious law. Yet, even before Joseph found out the baby was from the Holy Spirit, he was only planning on dismissing Mary quietly. This was not the righteous thing to do. Right here, at the very beginning of Jesus life, starts the tension between the prevailing understanding of God’s commandments and the new things God was doing through Jesus.
Capital punishment was the appropriate response to Mary’s situation. Mitigating this response, the penalty should have been sever and humiliating. Yet Joseph was only going to dismiss her quietly. He was choosing to live out the heart of the law not the letter as Jesus would do and teach time and time again through out his lifetime - the very action that would eventually lead to his persecution and execution.
So often at this time of year society speaks about the spirit of Christmas and Christmas cheer with magical wonder. When you truly look at these activities that are done with Christmas intent, they are the actions of Christ’s whole life. It is people take time out of their busy lives to visit with others, it is people choosing to spend money on a needy stranger by taking a tag of a Rotary Christmas Tree, it is buying a couple extra groceries to contribute to a hamper that feeds the hungry. It is actually and actively putting others first. It is sharing the very heart of the love of God, rather than sticking to the social laws that have been establish to look after oneself, often at the detriment of others. Oddly enough this ‘Christmas cheer’ behaviour is only encouraged at Christmas, or rather, it is specifically encouraged at Christmas. But this, these actions, is what it means to be a Christian. This is the very foundation of what Christ did. Us engaging in these activities is the very essence of what Emmanuel means. Emmanuel is God with us. It is Jesus showing us how to live, with the same heart as God. It is a call to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to do as Christ did, not just at Christmas but all year round.
Even before Jesus was born, his influence was challenging what it meant to be righteous, as opposed to just. Christ’s mission is still our mission. We are called to go beyond the tension of what is righteous, to seek out what is just. It doesn’t matter if there were donkeys, or chicken’s or a room filled with straw or not. It doesn’t matter if there were crowns on the heads of the wise men, or if they smelt like camels, it doesn’t matter if they visited with a squishy new born or a wriggly toddler. What matters and what we celebrate at this time is that a baby was born, that grew into a man, who refused to stand silent to oppression and injustice. Who taught those around him a new way to love. Who continued to teach this way to love even when his own life hung in the balance. To love as God loves. Indiscriminately, whole heartedly and unselfishly. My prayer for you this Christmas season is that you might be full of Christmas cheer, which causes you to live and love as Jesus taught, and that it might live in you and be expressed by you all year round.