December 21, 2014
As I shared last week, this Advent Season I have been praying for a light-filled heart that would enable me to hear (and understand) the Christmas story in more complete ways with greater measures of truth.
This week’s epiphany came by way of the insight of the pastor of a friend who passed it on to me.
On this side of this year’s epiphany, I now realize the degree to which in the past my own emotional history had shaped my picture of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and the birth of the baby.
My life journey has included a great deal of traveling alone (figuratively and practically). This journey has also frequently included difficult tasks that I confronted without human help (often by necessity, but at times through fear of relationship).
Predictably, as a consequence, I read such a context into the Christmas story. Just the two of them (the baby in utero), off alone on a long and dangerous journey; then the birth, again with the two of them alone in a remote place, Mary with only Joseph to help her in the difficult process of birthing her first child.
As given in Luke, the text standing alone can permit such a 'naked' reading of the event. It does so, however, only if the historical context of the passage is ignored, and a sociological context emphasizing individualism is boot-legged into history’s record.
The cultural context in which I have lived out my life journey has been, of course, one that strongly emphasized the individual, and the story of the individual’s life. Predictably, I unconsciously supplied such a context for the Mary/Joseph journey and the story of the birth of the child.
What I have seen this year is that my culturally-biased scenario is not so—or very, very unlikely, at best.
Mary and Joseph were an integral part of a community that contained others (likely, many others) who were also of the lineage of David. Similar to the later trip to the Temple, Joseph and Mary likely traveled in a group consisting of kinfolk and neighbors. It is highly unlikely they undertook the journey alone.
The “stable” might have been the lower floor of a house where there was no place for them in the rooms above the family animals, but where, true to the obligations of hospitality of the time, Joseph and Mary were offered the shelter that was available in the space where animals were kept safe.
In this situation, Mary would have been accompanied by other women, women who knowing of her pregnancy, would, as women everywhere would do, would look out for her, and aid her in any way that they could. My scenario, making Mary’s story one of a solitary, unattached female giving birth without assistance in a remote de-personalized setting, is just that—the story placed in a setting made logical by my cultural experience. While this setting appears reasonable in the context of contempory events, it is quite inconsistent with the actual life patterns common to that place and time in history.
Does correction of this unconscious distortion of historical context matter? Indeed, it does—very much.
In the historically more likely version, God’s people are still at the mercy of Rome’s imperial policies and the indifference of the powerful to the welfare of the weak and helpless.
God’s experience in the story continues to be described as God entering into human experience by being born into a family of the poor and the disenfranchised. The shepherds (smelly and unwashed) remain in the story, along with their incredible account of the heavenly context of the event—singing, talking angels and the whole night sky filled with light and song. What then becomes different if we “fix” my mistake?
For one thing, correction permits us to reflect accurately Luke’s historical record—we do not corrupt history by inserting contemporary context.
But most essentially, we correct a faulty impression of God. God did not alter Rome’s imperial indifference, nor alter the hardship that Rome’s policies imposed on the poor. God did not make Mary’s life easy, nor stage the birth of her first child in sterile conditions to safeguard her or her infant. There was no family celebration, and precious little physical comfort.
But in the corrected version of the story, we see Mary and Joseph surrounded by God’s people. God gave a place for birth, and God’s people to help, and God’s own personally sent representatives to celebrate (angels and shepherds—God sent an inclusive party selected from heaven and earth).
Getting the story right does not change the circumstances. Correcting the story does, however, make marvelously clear that God’s presence and provision do not depend on circumstance.
Seeing in new ways that the story is indeed about Immaneul, God with us.
See you next week.