I was born in Garkida, Nigeria the youngest child of missionary parents. My family returned to the United States in a hurry when I was only two years old. My father was deathly ill and my mother was directed to rush him back to a hospital in the United States in profound hope that the medical staff would be able to save his life and she wouldn’t have to be a widow at the ripe old age of 32. He lived. But because I am the youngest and was so young when we returned, I am the only family member who carried no memories of Nigeria with me.
But luckily for me, I grew up in a family of great storytellers and they spent their time telling the most epic tales of life in Nigeria. Like the one about the hyena who ate all of Oscar, our pet ostrich, except for the head; or the story of the day my brother was bit by a rabid dog; or the night my parents tried to cross the river during the rainy season to get my brother to adequate medical care and how my mother almost drowned. But I had no memories to place their stories into a context. I only knew what Africa looked like on Tarzan and when watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
Then in 2007 I traveled with my father, sister, brother, niece and son to Nigeria. Everything there was foreign and strange for me. I remember commenting to my sister that the whole country smelled like smoke and my sister said, “No, Susan, it smells like Africa.” She was flooded with memories and she was almost dreamy like the whole time. She had this profound sense of being home again. But I felt like I had been dropped into an alternate world where nothing looked like I expected. Nothing. It is like when they make a movie from your favorite book and whoever wrote the screenplay and produced the movie imagined the story very differently than you did.
I had that experience again this summer when I had the privilege to travel to Israel. I’ve read the book but everything looked so different than I imagined. The Jordan River was neither deep nor wide. Golgotha was now in the middle of the city and a church was built on top of it. But the thing that knocked my feet out from under me was realizing how wrong I had visualized the story of Jesus’ birth.
Bob Mullins, a member of this congregation who is a Near Eastern archaeologist, graciously served as the guide for our little group. We were aware of how deeply blessed we were to be traveling with someone with his depth of knowledge. We were in Capernaum when Bob explained to us where families in Jesus’ time kept their animals….right in the middle of the house on the first floor of the family home. All of us in the group were astounded by this revelation. You see, my favorite part of the Christmas story is that last sentence that Josih just read: “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 room in the inn.”
My whole idea of incarnation, of God being born in the flesh to live among us, is based on the last part of that sentence….because there was no room in the inn. From reading the Bible, singing Christmas carols, sitting through numerous Christmas pageants and preaching on this same story every year for the last 34 years for my life, I thought I had a good grasp of what happened on that first Christmas Day. This is how I imagined it:
A very pregnant Mary, looking like she would deliver any second, arrives in Bethlehem on the back of a donkey. Joseph takes her to the nearest inn but the innkeeper points to the “No Vacancy” sign above his head. Joseph is desperate and so the innkeeper points out the stable in the distance. They hustle across the fields where they have the whole barn to themselves. There is a soft glow around them as Joseph helps deliver the incarnation in the form of the infant Jesus. They have nothing with them they couldn’t carry so there is no crib. Mary wraps Jesus up tightly the way we do with infants and places him in the manger cushioned with sweet smelling hay.
Right? Isn’t that the way you learned the Christmas story? Every time I sing “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…” I see that innkeeper’s finger pointing at the “No Vacancy” sign. My whole theology of incarnation is based on God finding it hard to find a place to be born. The emperor sends them to Bethlehem and the innkeeper relegates them to the stable. Earth is an inhospitable place and yet God finds a way…even if shuttled off to the very outskirts of society. It is a theology that works well as we live through this time when people are turned away or locked up at our borders. We know that God will continually be born on earth, even when the empire makes it hard to find room. God can make the impossible possible because God loves us enough to be born even when there is no room. My understanding of incarnation begins with two words….no room.
But that isn’t what the story tells us….well, not exactly. It actually goes something like this:
At the time of the incarnation, Augustus was in charge of the empire and he wanted all of his citizens lined up and counted. The rule was that everyone had to be counted with their tribe so people all over Israel were traveling to their ancestral homes. Joseph needed to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city where David was from because Joseph was from David’s tribe. It was a four to five day trip by foot. Joseph took Mary with him. After all, they had entered the contractual relationship of betrothal and she was now to be counted as part of his family. Mary was expecting a baby when they headed for Bethlehem. When they got to the little town of Bethlehem, which only had a couple hundred people in it, they went right to Joseph’s ancestral home. There wouldn’t have been an inn in a town that size. But the guest room of the family home was already full with other family travelers, so Mary and Joseph stayed on the first floor with the animals. After all, they were the young couple. They could handle bunking down there better than grandpa’s brother and his wife. When it came time for Mary to deliver, they had the baby there with the sheep, goats and cows looking on. She had no crib so she laid the baby in the stone feeding trough that was built right into the floor.
I don’t know if you feel a bit disoriented like I did when I found out that the animals lived right in the house with the family. Luke never even mentions an innkeeper or a donkey. There is no urgency because Mary isn’t in active labor when they arrive. The word translated as inn in this scripture is the Greek word kataluma. It doesn’t mean inn in the way you and I think about it. People traveling in ancient Israel didn’t spend the night at the Holiday Inn Express. Kataluma means “guest room.” Luke will use this word again towards the end of his gospel when Jesus directs his disciples to follow a man with a water jar on his head…who will lead them to a house where they are then to ask the owner for permission to use his kataluma for a Passover meal…his kataluma…his upper room….his guest room. The Last Supper took place in someone’s kataluma.
Ancient Israel lived by the value of the hospitality code. There is no way that Joseph would have been turned away from the ancestral home, even if the upper room was already filled with family that had arrived before them. It would have been unthinkable to turn Joseph away, especially with a pregnant Mary in tow. There would have been no finger-pointing innkeeper, only a family member who wished they had more to offer. Could the true words of the incarnation actually be “welcome home” or “no room”?
While in Israel, our little group traveled to Bethlehem. In many ways it was our most difficult day. Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory. Rental cars are not allowed to travel into the West Bank. So we walked across this heavily guarded “border” and through the wall that separates Israel from Palestine. People in Bethlehem live with little compared to their Israeli neighbors. It is a ghetto…a restricted area meant to segregate a minority group.
The Church of the Nativity is found in Bethlehem. This church is shared by the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians and the Catholics. Part of the old Helena church still exists which makes this the oldest church in the Holy Lands. When the Persians were destroying churches in 614 A.D. they left the Church of the Nativity alone because it had artwork of the magi dressed in the garb of Persian Zoroastrian priests, and those priests looked like them.
The five of us lined up with a multitude of other tourists to see the spot where Jesus is said to be born. It is a cave grotto on which the church now sits on top. Bob said it wouldn’t have been odd to have family homes built above a cave, which is where they would house the animals. It was a zoo trying to get into the cave with people pushing and shoving in order to have their time to pray in the location where God became flesh. On that spot they have put a star on the floor with a hole in the center so you can kneel down and put your hand through it. When you do you can feel the smooth stone below on which they say Jesus may have been born.
When I finally made it down the slick steps and into the cave, I imagined Mary giving birth to love in this place not because she and Joseph were sent away but because they were welcomed home. The incarnation was born in a house filled with family who had descended from the tribe of David. But it didn’t look like anything I had imagined. What I experienced wasn’t the Christmas card tableau of soft light, warm straw, cattle lowing. Not after passing armed guards to get to Bethlehem.
What hit me was the stark reality of life in the empire….and of God choosing to come here to make a home with us. Banksy, the British guerrilla artist, has painted nine murals in the West Bank to depict what it is like to live in a walled ghetto within Israel. Your bulletin cover is one of those murals.
I stood in that cave grotto and contemplated my question in this space: Was the incarnation greeted with no room or welcome home? In Bethlehem I found my answer. The answer is yes. Yes, incarnation was greeted with “no room.” The empire never wants the incarnation to be born among us. It will try its hardest to lock down the throne room and send everyone scurrying away to the margins. The empire tried its best to make no room for the likes of Jesus.
And yes, the incarnation heard “welcome home” in the little burg of Bethlehem in the lap of the family. The family didn’t have much but what they had they offered and God made do with what was available. Incarnation was welcomed as a child of the poor. God was born helpless, hungry, wrapped in swaddling cloths, surrounded by the stench of farm animals and embraced by family.
Our call is not to the halls of power but to be the family of God. The Christmas story lures us to wherever there are walls that scream no room….wherever there are signs that say “You are not wanted here.” Search the faces of those excluded and you will find Christ being born again and again. You will recognize the incarnation among the children of those who are told there is “no room” and the Christmas story invites you to say to them, “Welcome home.” Amen