We Know by Heart
I didn’t decorate much for the Christmas season at my apartment in New Jersey. Of course, I knew I would spend the last part of Advent and all of Christmas in Syracuse with my family, so decorating a place I wouldn’t be in seemed a bit silly. But also, most of my Christmas decorations are in a storage unit here in East Syracuse, and my apartment in New Jersey is tiny, and I couldn’t give up valuable space in my apartment to decorations that would come out only for a few weeks a year. I do miss, though, my collection of nativities. I have several beautiful nativity sets that have been purchased by me or gifted to me over the years, and I love seeing all the different ways different artists and different cultures have envisioned the scene of Jesus’ birth, beautiful, creative, and moving. The sets are all different - some include 2 or 3 wisemen, or none at all. Each has a different variety and number of animals thought to be witnesses of Jesus’ birth. Some include just a crib of straw for Jesus, and others include a stable, the humble shelter where we typically envision Jesus’ birth taking place. Which nativity set do you think most represents the true picture of Jesus’ birth?
During Advent, I saw an article posted several times on facebook, written by Ian Paul titled, “Jesus wasn’t born in a stable—and that makes all the difference.” His basic point is that the story of Jesus’s birth in Luke does say Jesus is laid in a manger, but it doesn’t say he was born in a stable. And the word that we read as “inn” - as in, “there was no room for them in the inn” can mean inn - but it can also mean “place to stay.” So, it was too crowded where Mary and Joseph were when Mary gave birth, but they weren’t necessarily in a stable behind an inn, but perhaps in the lower room of a family member’s home that also would hold the animals - hence the manger, the feeding trough, when Jesus was born.
Well, of all my nativity sets, certainly none of them depict the holy family in the lower room of some family member’s home. So what do I do with this information about Jesus’ birth, assuming it is, or at least that it could be true? Does it matter if we’ve been picturing Jesus’ birth wrong? Do I need to scrap the nativity scenes I treasure, and look for a new one? Do the details make a difference? My mom has been doing an online Bible Study at her church this advent, University UMC in Syracuse, and she’s been asking some similar questions. The book that they were using for their study suggested that some of the “facts” we learn about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth aren’t quite right, or that we’ve misunderstood them. For example, the author suggests that there might not have been a census, or that people didn’t travel to their ancestral homes, or other nuances to the details we know from Luke’s account. At first, my mom found all this new information pretty troubling. She’d never heard anyone suggest that not everything unfolded just as written by Luke.
But then, she started thinking. She thought of a math problem - those word problems you get on math worksheets when you’re in grade school. “If Bobby has 5 apples and Susie has 3 apples, how many apples do they have all together?” Finding out that there’s no real Bobby and Susie with apples, she said, doesn’t change the truth that five apples and 3 apples totals 8 apples, and that’s the point of the story to begin with. The truth doesn’t change, and that’s the only reason for the word problem to exist. The details of the problem help us figure out the answer, set the scene, draw us in. But the answer doesn’t change.
What matters most about the story of Christmas, the story we know by heart? What’s the essence, the truth that Luke is telling us, unfolding in the midst of shepherds and angels, trips to Bethlehem and bright stars in the sky? I can’t help but flashing to Linus, trying to explain to Charlie Brown what Christmas is really all about in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Linus declares that he can tell Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about, and in his speech, he focuses on exactly what I’d say is the heart of the Christmas story too. Linus shares the words of the angel, God’s messenger, and the words sung by all the messengers in God’s angelic chorus. First: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day ... a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” and then “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Jesus is born - and God’s messengers tell us why that’s important: Jesus is good news, great joy in the flesh, so no need for fear. Jesus’ arrival is meant for all people. This Jesus is a savior, the messiah, the anointed one, reigning in God’s name. And the rest of the angels offer us more, a blessing: Glory to God in heaven, and on earth, peace for all those God favors. And hopefully many of you remember from worship on Sunday - God’s favor doesn’t mean favorite. Favor means God’s grace. So the angels announce an offering of peace on earth for all those to whom God has shown grace - in other words, peace for all of us. Jesus is born, so fear not, but instead be full of joy. There’s good news: Jesus comes to save us all, and God, who shows us grace, wants us to experience peace on earth. That’s the truth of Christmas. God comes to be with us, as close as possible, in the flesh, in person, as one of us, to bring us grace, peace, and joy. Whether we know for sure if Jesus was born in a stable or a guest room, behind an inn or among family, we know why Jesus was born. And that’s the truth that matters to me.
I want to share with you some words from Scott Erickson, author of a book called Honest Advent. His reflection, I think, touches on some of these themes we’ve been thinking about. He writes about the story of Jesus’ birth:
It’s assumed that Mary rode on a donkey, but the Bible doesn’t say she did.
It’s assumed there was an innkeeper, but it doesn’t mention one anywhere.
It’s assumed there were three Magi, but it doesn’t give a number of those who showed up.
It’s assumed there was a star overhead when Jesus was born, but it doesn’t say that either.
It’s assumed that Jesus was born in a stable, but all it says is that He was laid in a manger - and that could’ve been any number of places.
Christmas comes with many assumptions—some helpful, some not so much.
Spirituality also comes with many assumptions, and the ones that fail us are the ones we make about what it’s supposed to look like, who is worthy for it to happen to, and what kind of outcome it’s supposed to have for us. Assumptions like . . .
You should be more than you are now to be pleasing to God.
Your weaknesses are in the way of God’s plan for your life.
Your lack of religious excitement disqualifies you from divine participation.
You’re probably not doing it right.
Other spiritual people have something you don’t have.
Our assumptions hinder our spiritual journey in all kinds of ways, and the antidote to assumption is surprise. The surprise of Christ’s incarnation (Beth: God being with us in the flesh) is that it happened in Mary’s day as it is happening every day in your lack of resources, your overcrowded lodging, your unlit night sky, your humble surroundings.
It’s a surprise that life can come through barren places.
It’s a surprise that meek nobodies partake in divine plans.
It’s a surprise that messengers are sent all along the hidden journey of life to let you know you are not alone.
It’s a surprise that you will be given everything you need to accomplish what you’ve been asked to do.
It’s a surprise that nothing can separate you from the love of God.
Nothing can separate you from love. Your assumptions believe there must be something that can . . . But surprise! Nothing can.
May you thank God with joyful surprise at how much you have assumed incorrectly.
I love this reflection, that invites us to imagine how looking again at the story we’re sure we know by heart can still shake us up, stir our hearts, change our world, even while I love that the truth of Jesus’ birth and what it means is unwavering: A savior is born. God is with us. Grace for all. I love all of my navities. But pretty nativity scenes aren’t what makes me want to devote my life to following in the ways of Jesus. That’s not what makes me prepare my heart for the weeks of Advent to receive the Christ child into my life anew. They’re not putting a call on my life to love as God has loved, showing grace in abundance and working for peace on earth. What does inspire me, what I hope is driving you too? The truth: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day ... a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Thanks be to God! Amen.
Paul, Ian, “Jesus wasn’t born in a stable—and that makes all the difference,” PsePhizo, 20 November 2020, https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/jesus-wasnt-born-in-a-stable-and-that-makes-all-the-difference/.