The Midnight Christmass
Monday 24 December
Ordinary people, Everyday hospitality ©Sue Wilton
One of my favourite online videos is Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity”. In it he tells the story of a nativity play where his four year old son was given a lead role. Now nativity plays aren’t notorious for being accurate to the Biblical text, but it is hard when you have lots of kids all wanting a big part- so you put in as many characters as you can. We enlightened Anglicans know that the wise men from the East actually wouldn’t have been there on the night Jesus was born but turned up later (anywhere from 2 months to 2 years later) and we celebrate this event in the Church on the Feast of the Epiphany. But in most nativity plays, including this one starring Ken Robinson’s son, the wise ones arrive in the stable scene to offer gifts to baby Jesus lying in the manger. When it got to the part where the three kings come in, three four-year-olds strode in, proudly bearing the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Sir Ken describes them coming in with tea towels on their heads and the first boy says, “I bring you gold.”
The second boy said, “I bring you myrrh.”
And the third boy said, “Frank sent this.”
Children make sense of things on their own terms, and so when the word, ‘frankincense’ was meaningless, this boy crafted his own new meaning and imagined a ‘Frank’ somewhere, who was kindly sending something along to the Christ child. And while this is cute and funny, I think it also says something important about how we need to keep the ordinary and everyday in Christmass.
Something gets lost in our Christmass story when we think only of the trauma of a travelling mother giving birth and being turned away from all the households and finding no room at the inn. The stable scene is often given some Hollywood gloss with the shepherds rushing up and wise men in their royal robes crowding in and giving expensive, glamourous gifts. But perhaps the beauty of the Christmass story is found not in being an extraordinary story, but in being ordinary.
It is true that the writer of Luke’s Gospel, the only Gospel with a birth narrative recorded, gives us the sketchiest of details.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
So we are forced to let go of an awful lot that of what we would find in our traditional nativity set: there are no animals mentioned, and there is no stable- just the reference to the manger. The use of the word “inn” is a curious one. In Biblical Greek there are two words for “inn”: kataluma and pandocheion. When we hear “inn” we are most likely thinking of something akin to a motel, or the first century
equivalent of a hostel that takes multiple guests and their horses. And that wouldn’t be far off…if you were reading Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan, where the word used is pandocheion is used and does mean a kind of hostel with an owner and beds for the night. However, this is not the word used in the nativity story. Here the word is kataluma, which is a different thing entirely. Most people of the time lived in a one-roomed dwelling where there was a space for living and sleeping and a fire. Animals were brought in at night for extra warmth and to keep them safe. If you were lucky, you also had an upper room a kataluma– which could be rented out. It is important to remember that the story tells us the reason Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem was because it was the home town of Joseph’s family. The story also tells us that there was no place for them in a kataluma, so Mary had the baby and laid him in the manger. As poet, Padraig O’Tuama points out, the manger would have been where mangers always were: in the living space of a family, a family who made room for Joseph, Mary and Jesus in their own home. This would likely have been some of Joseph’s relatives who had shown ordinary everyday kindness and hospitality by opening their main living space to the young family in need. So perhaps our nativity scenes needed to include some distant relatives assisting with the birth, or standing around in awe and wonder as ecstatic shepherds come bursting in, punch drunk on visions of angels. Middle Eastern cultures, both then and now, place high value on hospitality and such audiences are horrified by Western storytelling where a woman about to give birth is turned away at the door. Sometimes we need to look a bit more carefully at our encultured ways of reading these texts.
There is a wonderful Gary Larson cartoon with a picture of the stable and the visiting wise men, with the caption, “Unbeknownst to most theologians, there was a fourth wise man, who was turned away for bringing fruitcake.” That cartoon always makes me laugh, but really I would like to think that the one with the fruitcake would have been welcomed with open arms. Because what was so extraordinary about that night in Bethlehem was that the holy one of God had appeared in
the most ordinary way, amongst the most ordinary of people, in the middle of an ordinary family’s living room. And Mary found a place to bear her child because of the everyday kindness and hospitality of those who responded to her need and opened their home. The angelic heralds needed to make clear to those shepherds what the sign of the coming of God would be- ‘you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger’. Without such heavenly intelligence, the coming of God could have been so silent, so beautiful in the most mundane of ways, that it could have passed unnoticed on that still starlit night. And of all envoys to choose, the message of good news of great joy was given to a few nobodies on a hillside quietly watching their sheep as they had done night after night. There may be all the drama of the angels, but then the message was entrusted to those who were on the very margins of society- hardly a well-managed press release.
But here is where we need to recognise that the messenger is the message. God has come to us. The holy is not enclosed in temple sanctuaries but has broken out and quietly crept into the ordinary and the everyday and revealed divinity first to the despised and lowly. The sacred is enfleshed in a squawling infant. Those who open their homes, hold the hand of a mother giving birth, cook the food, visit with gifts, or just come to chat and admire, are all engaged in acts of Divine hospitality. Because God is wrapped in human flesh, the human is now holy and all creation is saturated with the presence of God. Every open door, every kind word, every hot cuppa, every handshake, every hug can be a sacred act. And the good news of this holy night, is that we can commit ourselves to living the truth of Emmanuel as we incarnate Christ anew each day of our lives. So let us celebrate a nativity where there is lashings of fruit cake and cups of tea, where Frank from up the road sends on a parcel for the baby Jesus and where together we live our lives joyfully revealing the glory of God.