In Luke’s account, Jesus is born into an ever-expanding family into which we are all invited. (Listen.)
A baby is born in a little village, it doesn’t matter where. The women attending send out word, and soon a line is forming at the door. One by one, every member of the village, and every visitor to the village, and every traveller passing through, comes inside and greets the newborn. They introduce themselves to the baby, and they welcome the baby into the world.
In many parts of the world for most of history, where concepts like ‘individual’ and ‘privacy’ are non-existent, being born into a crowd is normal; and being greeted by dozens of people soon after birth is completely normal, too. In some cultures, it’s on the day they’re born; in others, it’s on day eight. Whenever it happens, because it’s so normal, it doesn’t need to be spelled out. Everyone knows that’s how babies arrive: into a sea of faces. First the women who companion the labouring mother; then everyone else.
But being welcomed by a crowd is not what most of us know. Our women usually give birth in hospital wards, and visitors are limited. When baby gets home families often ask to be left alone; and let’s not even mention COVID shutdown. But it means we have a false picture of Jesus and his family. We so often think of Mary, Joseph and Jesus as an independent nuclear family, just as many of us live our own lives. But Luke’s account is a story of crowds, through-and-through: sometimes mentioned, sometimes implicit.
There’s Elizabeth and Zechariah, who celebrate Mary’s pregnancy and shelter their young cousin for months. There’s the hometown of Bethlehem, crammed with countless relatives. When the baby is born, shepherds turn up, because anyone can walk in the door. They share their news with the people they meet, and all the crowd was amazed.
Soon afterwards, we meet Simeon at the temple, who prophesies over the baby; and Anna, too, who speaks to everyone who will listen. A few years later, as was the custom, this child travelled to Jerusalem in such a big group that nobody noticed when he went AWOL: because when forty or fifty of you are travelling with a dozen little boys, it’s impossible to keep track of them all.
The boy grew up to be a man constantly surrounded by crowds pressing in: and he invited them all to be family. For he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21): he opened up his family to everyone.
But wait, you say, we know the story. There was no room at the inn! Mary laid her baby in a manger! They must have been alone in a stable! So let’s do some deconstruction.
The word often translated as ‘inn’ is κατάλυμα; but there is no inn. There are other words which mean ‘inn’, but this isn’t any of those words. Instead, it just means ‘guest room.’ It’s a little room, perhaps on the roof, where guests are put up: but what with the census and all, and everyone being forced to travel to their hometown, by the time Mary and Joseph get to their relatives’ house the guest room is overflowing. But these are Middle Easterners, Abraham’s people. Hospitality is the ultimate value, for relatives, for strangers, and for those who are simply passing by. Remember old Abraham? He ran after strangers to ensure they were welcomed and fed: because that’s what you do.
Okay, okay, you say, so the ‘guest room’ was full: but Mary laid her baby in a manger. That must mean a stable or an outbuilding: except that it doesn’t.
Because in a first-century or even a twentieth-century traditional Palestinian home, you only have one main room. There’s the lower part, where the animals are brought inside at night for protection and warmth; and then there’s a few steps up to a platform. The platform is where the humans live, eating and working and chatting and sleeping in the radiant heat given off by the animals. This same platform is just high enough so that the mangers on the edge of it are the right height for animals to feed. And if a baby’s in a manger, it’s warm and protected; nobody will step on it in a dim and crowded room.
And boy, is that room is full. You know how it is when everyone turns up. First the guestroom, then the couch, then the rug in front of the fire; and the kids in a tent in the yard. There are people and bedrolls everywhere. And this young lass is going into labour: she needs to be near women and warmth.
But of course there are aunties and cousins and a granny or two there—it’s so obvious that Luke doesn’t mention it—and Mary breathes hard and someone rubs her back and someone else croons softly, keeping her calm. People try not to worry as they remember little Judith last year who didn’t make it; someone is reciting a prayer. There are groans and panting and sobbing and sighs, and muttered instructions; warm water; towels. The tension is mounting when, with one final push, out the little one comes. It’s a boy, praise God!, and mum’s alive and soon enough the bleeding stops. Aunty cuts the cord and ties it off, and granny sheds a tear of relief, because with such a young girl, you never know.
He’s put on the breast, wrinkled hands guiding the teenage nipple, and he snorts and snuffles and tries to suckle when the shepherds come barrelling in. And on their tail, perhaps, comes everyone else: the members of the village, and every visitor to the village, and every traveller passing through: because this baby is good news of great joy to all the people: and he needs to know who all the people are. So we line up and introduce ourselves and welcome him in: to our ordinary messy lives and ordinary messy families and ordinary messy old world.
Jesus. He is not tucked away in some sad and lonely stable, far from the rhythms of life. Instead, he is born into the middle of things: a family, a crowd, a neighbourhood, a culture, which make room and welcome him in.
Also known as: Emmanuel, God-with-us. He graces everyday people and everyday places, even dysfunctional families and fractious relationships and villages at the edges of empire.
Also known as: The Word made flesh. He doesn’t take away our bodies and stretchmarks and nipples and wounds, our griefs or fears or failures, but enters into them and shares them with us and makes all things holy.
Also known as: Saviour. He is good news of great joy for all the people, not just the special ones or the good ones or the ones who have their act together: and just as we introduce ourselves and welcome him in, he welcomes us into his family.
So with the whole world around us,
heaven and earth, angels and shepherds,
stars and mitochondria and dust,
let us rejoice.
With the young woman who said Yes,
with the old woman who sheltered her,
with the animals who gave up their manger,
with the extended family who first welcomed and raised him,
let us make room.
With the shepherds who brought news,
with the wise ones who brought gifts,
and with all the uncounted guests,
let us make ourselves known to him.
And let us celebrate,
because God knows and loves the earth and the people of earth
in all their ordinary messiness,
and a baby was born in the midst of the crowd
to fill earth with the culture of heaven. Amen. Ω
Reflect: If you were meeting for the very first time, how would you introduce yourself to the baby Jesus? What connections would you make? How would you make him feel welcome? Pray about this.
Congregational responses included cuddles, eye contact, clothes and gifts; songs, stories; play: things you, too, can offer God through somebody who needs your care. We welcome God, just as God welcomes us.
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