Recent studies of the gospels have invited us to read the Nativity stories again. They challenge us to discover the real narrative enclosed in traditional wrapping. In the story, the holy couple were not actually in haste and rejected. Rather than bouncing around from “no vacancy” to “no vacancy”, they were warmly welcomed into a two-room home whose guest room (katalyma in Greek, the same word that is used for a room where the last supper took place) was already taken. In New Testament days, peasant houses had two rooms: one reserved for guests and the other that served as the shared family room, kitchen, dining room, and a sleeping quarter. At night time, in order to keep well-behaved livestock warm and safe, they brought them into a lowered corner of the main room (the phate). We can see this type of living situation reflected in 1 Kings 17.19, for example, where the traveling prophet Elijah stays in a designated guest room. What makes this point even stronger is that no honorable shepherd would ever have departed the manger scene rejoicing if a neonatal infant and his parents had just been cast out into a barn.
The nativity story is one of those instances where tradition conceals the sharp edge of the actual story. We love the theological idea that the residents of Bethlehem rejected a descendent of David and left them alone for their labor. But if we read the story afresh, one of the main points, hidden in plain view, comes into focus. The Savior of the world was born among animals and announced to those who had welcomed Jesus into their simple lives. Those who had found the ultimate favor of God dwelled in common modesty and sheltered a few of their animals in their katalyma every night. The Gospel, though intended for people from every class, and the precepts of the kingdom, though naming Jesus as the heir to David’s throne, are founded upon commoners, a simple lifestyle and the animals.
The Psalmist would have resonated with the sacredness of this lifestyle:
Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, young men and women, old men and children. Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens (Ps. 148.7-13).
So during Christmas, as we rejoice in this manger-born Christ child, let us welcome the relevant beauty of God’s story afresh. God is coming. He sent his son to kick-start his oncoming rule. Though our lives are filled with temptations, sickness, and death, the heavenly power of divine love warms the cold places of our world. It began with his tender loving creation of heaven and earth and all who live in it. It continues with his delight in us, in the death-destined life of his son and in his ongoing work. He is forming the stony hearts of his people into soft and beating organs of his love on earth. Long ago, some peasants from the city of David showed great hospitality that night to God’s favored. The heavenly army of angels sent God’s birth announcement to the rough, disfigured, and stigmatized shepherds. By making room in their homes and schedules for this child and their parents, heaven broke in to their simple lives. What can we do this Christmas to simplify and welcome the Christ-child into our hearts and homes?
Keith Jagger first met the Sleeths when they were neighbors in Wilmore, Kentucky, and were brought together by their shared passion for creation care. After completing his studies at Asbury Seminary, Keith moved to Scotland to study with N.T. Wright. As Blessed Earth’s “Anglo Correspondent.” Keith writes both from the perspective a PhD student studying creation care and a husband/father/follower of Jesus struggling to incorporate creation care principles in his daily life. You can read more of his writing at keithjagger.com or urban-abbey.com.