A Not So Silent Night
Christmas week is filled with candles and the light of the Christmas tree and the fireplace warmth. For us, this year, it’s also filled with spurts of down time as we spend Christmas with my family. We’re in San Diego now and I found, at the house where we’re staying, a copy of the Grimm Brother’s fairy tales. The short stories are the perfect length for those small pieces of time between family activities, by the fireplace or out in the sunshine.
I’ve known for a few years that the original stories written by the Grimm brothers are a bit different from the tales I’ve heard and seen growing up. I know that things don’t always end well and that there’s a little more blood and death than Disney portrays in their cartoons and I’m okay with that. As an adult, I feel joy in peeling back the layers to a more complex story. I knew before that Cinderella’s stepsisters wanted to fit their foot inside that shoe, but not I understand the lengths they would go to make that happen. Each sister cut off a part of her foot in order to fit inside the shoe, their mother saying, “When you are Queen, you will have no more need to go on foot.”
The stories are messy, complex, and still beautiful. Sleeping Beauty didn’t wake up just because of the kiss. She woke up because her “deep sleep of a hundred years” was over, and the thorns on the castle let in the next person who came knocking. He happened to be a prince. Who kissed her. And then everyone woke up. But many had tried before, and gotten swallowed up (read: they died) by the thorns which engulfed the castle.
This year, I read another book that gave me a different perspective on a story I’ve known all my life. This story hits a little closer to home and is one with a bit more historical foundation that the Grimm's stories. There are no fairy godmothers or talking animals (unless you watched The Star), but there’s a little baby king and angels and a census.
In Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth E. Bailey writes about the layout of a house in Bethlehem and what it would have looked like back when Joseph took his fiancé all the way from their home in Nazareth to his home town. He explained, with diagrams, that the usual family house had three rooms: the main living space, the guest room, and the stable. The main living space was where the family did their sleeping, dining, etc. Life happened here. On one side of this living space was the stable. This was the dirtiest part of the home (for obvious reasons) and when sweeping the floor of the living space, they could sweep that dirt right into the stable. The stable is where the animals slept at night because it kept them safe from theft while also provided warmth for the family sleeping just in the next room over. The third room was on the far end of the house, on the other side of the living room. This was the guest room: the inn. Bailey dug deeper here, telling that there is more than one Greek word for “inn” and there is another word commonly used for a commercial inn, a hotel. This is not that word. This is the guest room.
So back to that familiar story I know and love. In my recollection, Joseph and Mary (who is, of course, nine months pregnant and riding on a donkey) are hurrying to Bethlehem so they can find a place to crash before Mary gives birth. I picture Joseph frantically running from house to house, knocking on doors, pleading with people to take in him and give his soon-to-be-wife a place to continue her labor. He’s a good man and is valiant in his efforts, but even the innkeeper turns him down which results in him to finding the only place he can: the stable. The dirty, smelly, isolated structure (we played out the scene on a table in the living room every year).
But the time crunch in my story isn’t true. Why hadn’t I seen it before? Kenneth (may I call him Kenneth?) stated that Mary was not, in fact, imminently pregnant when they arrived. She had time; they had planned better than my story makes it seem. “And while they were there, the time came for [Mary] to give birth” (Luke 2:6). While they were there. It doesn’t say, “as they were arriving” or “on the road leading into Bethlehem Joseph had an “oh, crap” moment.” They were already there. So they were already staying with someone.
I have a lot to learn about hospitality from my friends in the Middle East and Asia. We experienced this time and time again in the Philippines - dinner last minute? Yes! There’s a feast! You need a place to stay? You have at least four options. There’s a tourism commercial going around now for the Philippines where the young traveler is given food by an older Filipina who calls him “Anak.” “What is anak?” He asks another person in his travels. “Anak means, ‘my child.’” You may be a traveler, but in the Philippines, you’re family. This is true also in Middle Eastern cultures. (I’m grateful to a friend living in Jordan for her regular stories of how true this is!)
Middle Eastern culture is also one of honor and shame. This is a concept that, as an American, I’m only skimming the surface on as I research and gather stories. But to not offer hospitality, has the potential for bringing shame on the family.
Joseph was traveling to his home town, to his family. He had a place to stay. This was a matter, Ken shared, of honor for the family and a matter of offering hospitality.
But “there was no place for him in the inn”! This is the climax of every Christmas story! It’s the tension that drives the plot line.
There was no room for them in the guest room. And that just seems terribly inconvenient for this pregnant momma and Joseph. A census was happening and all of the family was in town and that room was already taken by other family members.
It may make sense that Mary gave birth in the stable since, from what I’ve hear, giving birth is a pretty messy thing. Then there was the manger: the manger sat in between the two rooms, the stable and the living room. Jesus was placed in the feeding trough that served as a divider between the filth and the place where the owners of the home themselves slept.
Ken said that Mary and Joseph probably slept in the main living quarters too, along with their hosts. I imagine, given the circumstances, it wasn’t very lonely. Not only do you have Joseph’s family (the guest room was full!) but then the shepherds came to visit too. It was a full house (and it’s anything like the Philippines, there's plenty of food to go around).
For so long I imagined this night to be lonely and, well, silent. I pictured the stable far off, probably in a field somewhere, with little light and not a person in sight. John 1 says of the word of God: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” That’s true, when He came, he was rejected by his people, Israel. But the night he was born seems to be filled with joy. The angels performed a celestial concert and the shepherds sang all the way back to their fields.
The story is more messy than I first thought, more complex and more beautiful. I imagine the chaotic family dynamic, of these people who haven’t seen each other in years, gathering in this one house for the census. I picture Mary’s quiet, confident faith as she is far from home in a place she’s doesn’t know, while giving birth to her first child. I wonder if the family questioned their situation too - here’s Joseph who brings him a pregnant woman he isn’t even married too. Then I consider the rejoicing shepherds entering the scene with such deep joy that confirms it to everyone.
The story reminds me of the world that Jesus came into: messy, complex, and oh, so beautiful. God himself stepped down into this world to live among us - fulfilling a promise that he himself made centuries before. The world stood in waiting and rather than a global fireworks display with a big band, God sent a baby to a family in a little house and let some shepherds know about it first.
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