Well, this is it. This is the story. When you think of Christmas, this is what you think of, I’m almost certain. And it evokes images for us. We have entire plays created around these images, the beautiful, serene image of Mary and Joseph, in the stable because there was no room at the inn, surrounded by straw and animals, a manger made of wood, the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes. We have entire theologies created out of this image, notions of the outcast Jesus, born all alone because no one wanted to take in a poor pregnant woman. Jesus as the lone stranger, looking in from outside, always at a distance.
But traveling to the Holy Land will burst some bubbles. A lot of preconceptions will be trashed when you actually wander the streets of Bethlehem, especially in the care of a capable tour guide like Naim, a 75 year old Palestinian Christian, born and raised in the streets of Jerusalem. Naim had been around. In his lifetime, he has seen more than a dozen wars, firsthand. He was one of the diggers employed at the archaeological site at Qumran, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed. It was Naim who demonstrated for us the quiet hospitality that is inherent in Palestinian culture. He introduced us to family, walked across the city and back to bring us favorite delicacies, arranged conversations with people who should have been enemies, but with whom he had a polite and respectful professional relationship – people like Muslim imams and Jewish settlers. Naim had a way of tearing down the prejudices of our Western eyes, and showing us new windows on politics, relationships, economics, and our own faith. Our class of 30 seminarians easily learned as much from him and more than we did from the professor who accompanied us. And one of the most stunning things we learned chips away at this story, the story that I have known since long before I was a Christian. The Nativity story.
It was so simple. All he did was show us a house. It was a house that had been unearthed during an archaeological dig next to the Church of the Annunciation, on the site where Mary learned she was to bear the Son of God, the Savior of all the world. The house would have been like every other house in first century Palestine. Almost a cave, dug down into the earth, and then built up on top with the sparse timber of the region. Two or three simple rooms, no more unless one was particularly wealthy. But for the 99%, two rooms. The front room was the family room, the space where the family ate, played, talked, slept. At night, the door was barred and the family lay down in front of it. If there were guests, they would sleep in the family room, if there was space. In some homes there was a small side room, an inn, where guests might stay. If you were traveling, you would look for relatives in whatever town you entered. However distant, hospitality demands that houseroom be given to a relative on the road. If no relatives have room, there may be a chance of staying in the inn, the guest room of a home with extra space. There are no motels, no Sheratons or Super8s. There are a few homes that have extra space.
Then behind the family room, and the inn room, if there is one, there was a stable. It was a large room, lined with straw when available, where the family’s animals spent the night. Donkeys, sheep, goats, whatever they had, it was brought in at night and put in the stable room, behind the family, where it would be safe from thieves and other harm. Along one side of the room, there would be small indentations, troughs for the animals’ feed. Mangers.
Mary and Joseph were travelers, a long way from home. That much is certain. But they were coming to the home of Joseph’s ancestors, the city of David, because Joseph was descended from the house of David. There would have been relatives there, people to welcome them. Maybe they arrived late, and the guest rooms were gone. But Palestinian hospitality would not send them out into some distant stable, away from everyone. Palestinian hospitality would have drawn them further into the home, into the stable at the back of the house, into the heart and the life of the family. Palestinian hospitality would have provided midwives and helpers, whatever food was available, and community for this new little family.
So why isn’t that the image that we have passed down? Why have we relegated our Lord and Savior to the lonely stable? Why is Mary always so serene looking moments after childbirth? Why is the straw so clean and tidy with animals living in it and childbirth happening on it? It is a ridiculous scene, to be honest. And yet, it is nothing like as ridiculous as the birth of God, the incarnation of the Creator into this messy, dirty, broken world. We would rather believe that there is such a thing as a baby that doesn’t cry, than to believe that God would be born into the messiness that is human community.
Because human community is messy. Human life is messy. And we spend a lot of time protecting ourselves from that, so it makes sense that we would want to protect God from that, too. The truth is, we don’t want to think too much about how messy life is. We ask each other the polite questions, and we give the polite answers. “How are you?” “I’m fine.” And then we can move on to the next bit of busy-ness, lose ourselves in the things that need to be done, so that we don’t have to think about the real answers to that question. Because the real answers are too hard, too painful, too messy.
How are you? I’m worried about my kids.
How are you? I’m scared that my marriage is falling apart.
How are you? I’m surrounded by people I love and I’m still lonely.
How are you? I’m sick and I don’t know why.
How are you? I’m angry and hurt because of something that was said in car on the way here, something that was said in anger years ago, something that was never said enough when I was a child.
How are you? I’m sick and tired of war and poverty and greed and brokenness and I want to change the world but I can’t even change my own life, and I’m about ready to give up on this messy thing called human community and go and live on a mountain somewhere.
How are you? I’m ashamed.
These are the true answers. The messy answers. The answers we would rather ignore if we can. The answers we certainly cannot imagine that God wants to hear, much less to experience. God, we think, wants us to be perfect. To be happy all the time, to be neat and tidy and always improving. And so we send God out to the neat tidy stable, off by himself, the lone stranger, the God who is always kept at a distance, where we can pretend that everything is fine. But if God is out there in the stable, God might as well have stayed in heaven.
Paul Bauermeister is a retired Lutheran pastor. Some of you know him from his time living in Washington. He has preached here a few times. He baptized my daughter Elinor. He told me a story last week. When he was first starting out as a pastor, over 50 years ago now, he was working at a congregation in the city. It was his first Christmas there, and they were preparing for the Christmas pageant. He got the little wooden manger, just like this one that we have here. And he got a little baby doll, just like this one, to put in the manger. And when the organist saw it, she had a fit. “No! You can’t use a doll for the baby Jesus! That’s idolatry!” And Paul, not wanting to offend, said, “Okay, so what do we use?” Well, it was simple. A big flashlight goes in the manger, and you have someone sneak up while the lights are all out, and turn it on at the height of the pageant. Alrighty then. So Christmas Eve service comes, and Paul is sitting in his little pew at the side of the chancel, and the flashlight is wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in the manger, and there is a little shepherd boy designated to be the one to turn the flashlight on at the right moment. And the moment comes, and the little boy is fumbling around in the dark in the manger in the swaddling cloths, and finally he gets it switched on, and he steps back and knocks the whole manger over, so that the flashlight goes tumbling, out of the manger, thump thump thump, down the chancel steps and out into the congregation.
Which is exactly the point. God didn’t come into the world to be confined to our notions of what God should and shouldn’t be. God didn’t come into the world to be held at a distance, while we pretend that everything is fine, thank you, and paste our smiles on our faces and soldier on, proving to God and everyone just how together we’ve got it. God didn’t come into the world in order to wait in the stable until we got our house tidied up enough to be worthy to welcome God in. God came into the world to get messy. To be born in the way that all humans are born, in messiness and pain. To be born into a community, crying in the cold and hunger of the world, and comforted by the loving touch of a mother. To know and understand the hardships and heartbreaks of life, and to let us know that these, too, these, especially, are worthy of God’s attention, of God’s presence, of God’s love. This is the true Nativity story, the story of God come into the world, to redeem the world, to turn our ideas of who God is and should be on their head, and to prove to us just how much God loves us, messy and broken as we are.