Last year I read through Kenneth Bailey’s book “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” – and his observations in the opening chapter around the birth story of Jesus, as told by Luke, captured my attention.
Bailey set the story in the context of the way homes were built and how the culture of hospitality worked in the middle east, shifting some things that we commonly assume about the story of Jesus birth. Since Joseph was from Bethlehem, it means he most likely had family there, and its very possible that he and Mary stayed with them (p25). Rules of hospitality would make it unthinkable to not allow them to! The piece about “no room for them” is most likely that there was not room in a guest room for them – and they had to stay in the family room where animals were brought in for the night, as the word used is not one used for a commercial inn but rather one that indicates there was not ‘space’ for them(pg. 31).
On top of that, he stated it was highly unlikely for a woman to go into labor and not have other women helping. It was very possible (even more likely) that the women in the house, and perhaps neighbors were there helping Mary as she gave give birth to Jesus (p. 26).
I know. It’s different than the story elements you grew up with. Me too. Different than all the movies (even my favorite one, The Nativity). It might make you stop and ask – If this is the case, why isn’t that in scripture? I’d say for two reasons:
1. Luke’s focus was on what God was doing through his people, he wasn’t writing a novel, so details like the midwives or whose house they stayed in didn’t really matter. He highlighted the fact that angels celebrated (cosmic witness to God coming to earth), shepherds were the first to be told about the Messiah (not the high and mighty), and that Jesus came as any commoner would (he wasn’t born in luxury)
2. Luke also wouldn’t include things in the story that are assumed in their culture, like the layout of a house and how they would bring animals in, and a manger/feed trough was inside so the animals could still eat at night if they needed. Of course his readers know that. They also would have had in their head the rules around hospitality, that you always welcome strangers… especially for a man with a pregnant wife! it would be unheard of to not make room for them somewhere
Whether or Mary was alone or surrounded by other women giving birth doesn’t change the wonder or holiness of the birth of the Messiah for me. Yet for all the emotions women carry around the birth of a child, and as a woman myself, I have to admit it’s beautiful to know she might NOT have been alone. After all, God knew Mary’s heart and carried her all those 9 months… wouldn’t it make sense that other women would be able to join in her joy at the birth of her son?
It was interesting for me, though, when I shared this thought with Trung. I was pondering the possibility of Mary and Joseph not being alone, or the thought that perhaps Joseph had family nearby that may have offered him a place to stay. Isn’t that a comforting thought, I asked? “No way,” he said. I was surprised. “If I was engaged to a woman with a child out of wedlock, there is no way I’d let family know I was in town”.
Ah. The difference between how men and women may see the story.
It made me stop and think.
I have a tendency to read the Christmas story and process it through western eyes, not through a family honor/shame lens. I am just starting to learn about how that plays into the stories of the New Testament, and I’m fascinated, I must be honest. I feel like there is a whole new layer I’m starting to discover.
At the start of the story, do we too quickly skip over the shame that Mary and Joseph must have dealt with in the public realm of their little village, as Mary’s belly began to grow? What about the shame it brought on her own parents. Were they talked about, did people stop talking to them? When they were on the journey to Bethlehem, did Joseph fear family and how they would react, knowing rumors had probably been spread about what was going on? Rules of hospitality would demand they be welcome, but would they rejoice at the birth of their child and forgive what was dishonorable (in their eyes) about the conception… especially once they found out who Jesus was?
Yes, we have the stories of how both Mary and Joseph walked in faith, knowing they were being obedient to something God had asked them to do. We know Joseph almost walked away from it, until an angel appeared to him and explained what was going on. In retrospect, we stand in awe at the courage it must have taken, the wonder they must have walked in, because we can see what it led to. I cannot imagine carrying a secret of this magnitude, knowing externally things were looking like you were disobeying the law of God, where as internally they both knew they were honoring God in their obedience.
I wonder if they tried to tell people, and if they did, what did they say? God bless Elizabeth and Zechariah – at least Mary and Joseph had someone in their corner!
It took me back a few years, to a time when I began to identify with Mary in a way I never thought I would. I sat in the back of a church at Christmas, thinking of what it must have been like for Mary to carry the secret that no one would believe. I, too, was carrying a secret that no one would believe if I told them. The burden was crushing. The shame I was feeling was too much to carry. It was the Christmas where I knew my first marriage was ending.
This was the one thing, as someone who walked with God closely and who had taken time to care for their marriage, should not be doing. Ever. We had made vows, they had been tested over those 24 years, but we’d survived. We hadn’t told anyone the decision we’d come to that Christmas. Yet by that time, I knew it was the only thing we could do. It was time to give my ex husband the freedom he was asking for, to live his life as a gay man. Somehow, I knew it was right, even though all the voices in me said it was wrong to break a covenant.
I was drowning in sorrow and shame. I sat in the church, tears in my eyes, and I knew in that moment how heavy the burden Mary bore must have been. Yes, it was a completely different one, but she knew God was part of it. Did she fear what others were going to say? I’m sure. Did she walk forward anyway, knowing it would be hard, but good? Well, obviously she did. We have no writings of her agony, or things people said, or if anyone came along side and asked her story or supported her in the mystery of what was going on. But her community was human, let’s be real.
I’d like to think that she took hope in Psalm 34:5 like I did that year:
“Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame”
My meditations that Christmas were not around joy, or mystery, or miracle. Instead they were more around how hard and shallow things seemed for those who endure loss. Probably because I was going through the same thing myself.
I share this, not to bring some sort of dark cloud on what should be a very deep and thoughtful and celebratory moment – but to acknowledge that there are some of you out there that are having a hard time this holiday, for reasons only you and God know.
I see you.
I’ve been there.
Your tears and heartache matter.
You will get through this, I promise.
I’m sorry it’s so hard, I’m sorry no one seems to understand you, and that you feel you have to carry this pain alone.
You don’t have to.
This year, my prayer is that you can somehow comprehend that the sorrow you feel, the shame you may carry, the disappointment and hurt and loss… is actually part of the very story of our faith. It’s hard to see how what you are going through fits into the big picture. Maybe nothing seems to have meaning right now. Hang on.
Come to the manger, the incomprehensible place where the God of all creation made his entrance into the world in the form of a little middle eastern baby. Risk trusting that the grown man he became can walk you through this holiday. He can bear your burden with you. Close your eyes and just ask. He knows. His love is there for you.
God has a way of redeeming the broken things of this world, of bringing purpose and meaning to things we think can never be made right again.
Will you trust He can do that for you?
He certainly has for me.
To all of you, I hope you have a Christmas full of meaning. May the God of all creation bring light into your world this season – in whatever form it comes!
Baily, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. IVP Academic, 2008.