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The Extraordinary in the Ordinary (2): What if God Was One of Us?

December 19, 2011
19 Dec 2011

Joseph… went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Luke 2:4-7

Yes, you read that right – ‘no guest room’. That’s how the revised New International Version translates Luke 2:7. It comes as a surprise to some people to discover that there is no mention of a stable or an inn, let alone an innkeeper, in the Christmas story.

Given that Joseph was returning to his home town, it’s highly unlikely he would not be able to find shelter there. Even allowing for the shame of a child conceived out of wedlock, hospitality codes meant that strangers could expect some welcome, let alone a member of the family expecting the birth of a baby. Moreover, that Jesus was born ‘while they were there’ suggests plenty of time to arrange suitable housing.

Luke uses the regular word for ‘inn’ when relating Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (10:34). The word used here, however, is the same one he uses for the ‘upper room’ of a house where the last supper took place (22:11). It refers to a lodging or guest room, usually part of a private house.

This, and the mention of the manger, fits what is known of peasant houses from this period. They typically had one room where eating and sleeping took place, with a lower section for animals. Mangers were often cut into the floor of the living accommodation. In some homes, a ‘guest room’ could be built on the flat roof or at the end of the house. Luke tells us that this room is already occupied, so Mary places the newborn child in the most comfortable place in the house – the manger in the main family room. It’s lowly, but more domestic than destitute.

Somewhat ironically, the effect of the stable scenes on our Christmas cards might be to distance Jesus from us, perhaps allowing us to forget that he was born as ‘one of us’. As it happens, the most striking feature of Luke’s account is its decided ‘ordinariness’, with Jesus born in the normal surroundings of an everyday peasant home.

To be sure, he is the Saviour, Christ the Lord (2:11), and yet he takes his place with us in the mundaneness of the everyday world. And the salvation he brings comes in the context of real life, and to people just like us.

 

Antony Billington

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary (1): There’s Something About Mary

December 12, 2011
12 Dec 2011

The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.’ ‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’
Luke 1:30-34

While it has always been possible to make too much of Mary, it has been all too easy to make too little of her. Because, even if she is not an object of faith, she is an example of faith. And a very real example too.

Her story is elaborated in later Christian literature and art, with accounts of her own miraculous birth and childhood, accompanied by regular angelic visitations. Annunciation scenes sometimes portray Mary as reading Scripture or praying, or spinning purple thread for the temple veil – none of which is found in the gospels. Instead, like the fishermen and tax collectors who would be called, her heavenly encounter comes in the midst of everyday life – as an ordinary Galilean girl engaged to be married to Joseph. And, like the rest of us would be, she’s surprised and scared by the arrival of Gabriel.

Her response to his message is just as human, and wonderfully real. Faced with the increasingly amazing announcement – child, then son, then great, then Son of the Most High, then king, then eternal – Mary is frozen back at step one. A child? She’s young, but she’s not stupid; she knows how babies are made, and she knows she’s not been with a man. And so she says: ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ No deep theological question. No amazing insight. No request for a sign. And no objection: ‘I am the Lord’s servant… May your word to me be fulfilled’ (Luke 1:38).

It’s a staggering response. Her reputation would be at stake, and her husband-to-be might want nothing more to do with her. She will play out something of the scandal of the gospel in her very self, and yet consents to do so as a servant of the Lord. She believes the word that is spoken to her, even if she doesn’t fully understand it, and her trust exercises itself in submission.

Then, as her story goes on, faith and obedience will give rise to joyful singing and quiet reflection – all appropriate responses of ordinary, everyday servants of God since, at Christmastime and all times.

 

Antony Billington