Seventeenth century Puritans outlawed Christmas in their colonies. To them, it was an insult to Christ to have actors dressed in drag accompanying drunken revelers as they stumble up to a private residence, demanding food and drink for song; you know the line, “So bring us some figgy pudding, bring us some figgy pudding, bring us some figgy pudding, and bring it right here!” That’s what we’re talking about. Christmas was a bacchanal. It was a yearly trip to Vegas. Sounds fun until you’ve got a dozen hungry, drunken, mischievous carolers at your door, singing off-key while having no compunction against unleashing their anger upon your house. “We won’t go until we get some, we won’t go until we get some, we won’t go until we get some, so bring it right here!” The Puritans answered these traditions by firing the first shots in what will later be called by Fox News, the War on Christmas.
Can you imagine that happening today? A hefty fine being levied simply for saying “Merry Christmas”? Such was the case when this whole American experiment began, and it was started by some serious Christians.
Pretty much everything we think we know about Christmas is wrong. I’m not talking just about the Santa Claus lore; I mean the basic biblical elements of the story are widely misunderstood and misrepresented. To begin with, the Greek word that often is translated as “inn,” like a lodging house, more properly means “upper room.” Like the upper room that Jesus and the disciples will use the night before Jesus hands himself over to the authorities. In fact, that might be the play on words that Luke is looking for; there was no upper room when Jesus needed to be born, but he finds one when he needs to die. What’s more to this point, Luke uses the proper Greek word for “inn” at various instances in the gospel account, so why not here, if in fact there was no room at the inn?
Because Joseph and Mary are not looking for a lodging house. It makes absolutely no sense to think that the Holy Family would have started a 70-mile journey while Mary is in the third trimester of her pregnancy. It is odd to think that Joseph would return to his familial home, Bethlehem, and not be welcomed in by someone who was kin. We can argue that the scandal of the pregnancy is a reason, but we just don’t know. It is more likely that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem after Mary left Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house, where she stayed for three months after singing the Magnificat. So push out of your mind the image of doors slamming in their faces as they make their way from place to place. The notion that they are actively rejected by others is not supported by the text itself.
Over the years, we’ve created a different situation in our popular lore. We cling to it as well. I have learned to be careful where and when I speak about these issues; this form of popular Christianity that is based on extra-biblical traditions is often taken as gospel.
The Gospel it is not.
Most likely, what Luke is describing was a common situation. Archeologists confirm that the average house at this time was two levels: general family activities occurred in the lower room; sleeping quarters and more private space were in the upper room. At night, animals would be brought in to the lower room to protect them from the elements and banditry. What appears to be happening in our story is that none of the families have upper rooms they can provide for the birth, so Mary simply utilizes a lower room, replete with animals.
This is still a great tale, but it is not the one that we have created in the West. What I submit for your consideration tonight is that we have altered the details to make the Holy Family more acceptable. More palatable to our prejudices and discomforts. Let’s start with the basic fact that the Holy Family is not White. Anyone who tries to argue that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was White is not seriously trying to understand the story, so we need not spend any time on that; but can we talk about virgin birth? And I don’t mean analyzing it from a mytho-poetic perspective, tracing how it connects to other virgin myths of the ancient world. No. Can we talk about how a virgin birth is still a birth? With a placenta, blood, screaming, pain, and all the other human elements involved in transitioning from womb to world. It occurs with the same degree of chaos and confusion, the same degree of danger, the same degree of uncertainty for mother and child, as every other birth. There is a universal fact: Every time a woman’s water breaks, there’s a chance she might not have long to live.
The price of birth is death, something we Christians claim as central to our faith. Why do we forget about it when Jesus is born?
I submit for your consideration that we have emerged with a Christmas story that is far removed from what Luke wants us to see. I’m not even arguing for fact, here. I know that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. I imagine you know that as well; and we know that the truth of Christmas is not contingent upon verifying the facts of Jesus’ birth. Christmas is one of many human rituals that tries to focus on the truth of hope during a physically dark period. I don’t have any problems confessing that we are dealing with myth here.
Christmas is not about fact, it is about truth. It is time we understand that again.
But we can’t because we’ve sanitized the Holy Family. We’ve created a story in which innkeepers are the sinners; these untold and unnecessary characters fill our minds as we imagine that we most certainly would have found them a room. We’ve wiped anything possibly objectionable from the Holy Family. Even in the mixed-up, truthfully questionable version of the story, we have made it so that Mary and Joseph have not a care in the world. We skip over the fact that pregnant virgins and culturally shamed men do not go about the world unaccosted. They are targets. There are people who see them as a threat. As dangerous. When we see nativity scenes in churches, the Holy Family look more like us in the United States than they do the people in Syria today who can’t find a room, be it upper or lower. We have romanticized the story of Jesus’ birth to such an extent, a vast majority of us who confess to be Christians don’t see that there are untold numbers of holy families scanning the horizon all around the world, looking for any room, high, low, or betwixt.
But it seems that these real world examples are not acceptable refugees.
I imagine this is not the feel-good Christmas Eve sermon some might have hoped for, and believe me I prayed on this for days. You’re a captive audience, and for some this might be the one of only two times a year you come to church. In the preaching game, this is the show; the big leagues. The Christmas Eve sermon. The time to help people feel good, to make them want to come back next Sunday. And I want to do that, I really do, because I take my faith seriously and I truly believe that God is the answer to most questions. Tonight is the night to celebrate that. But I can’t deliver that sermon. Normally I preach about spiritual gifts, tell a cheesy bible joke, and we get back to singing. I just couldn’t do it this year. This year I feel like some things that I didn’t know needed to be said need to be said.
Jesus is not white. God is not male. Mary probably curses from pain, and Joseph is looking over his shoulder because if the wrong person learns the right details, he’s dead. The lower room stinks, it is crowded, things are tense, and come sunrise the virgin is not longer pregnant, and that brings a whole new crop of problems for them.
My esteemed ancestor, Rev. Frederick Denison Maurice, a founder of Christian Socialism, taught that Christianity is not a game, and that sometimes the pulpit needs to be made of fire.
Christmas is about being surrounded by fear, confusion, unmet expectations, and still seeing the light. Christmas is about God saying, Okay, keep your upper room; I get it. We all have needs. But for the love of me, open up that lower room. Why would you keep it locked when there is a need you can meet? Christmas is about knowing that the messiness of life is never enough to stop God from doing God’s work; but that requires us taking care of one another. We must stop making the Holy Family into acceptable refugees by changing their race, changing their reality, changing their circumstances. Let us see their exhaustion; let us smell the unpleasant mixture of odors after Jesus pops out into the world; let us see the women wearing head coverings, the men with long beards; let us hear the Aramaic that today will get one kicked off an airplane if spoken too loudly, but is the stuff of lullabies. Let us understand that the baby we welcome into the world, the one people like me call Lord and Savior, that this baby later says, “Whatever you have done to the least of these you have also done unto me.” Let us see that the people of Aleppo are looking for a Bethlehem, and there are two types of people: those who open up a room, and those who don’t.
“So bring us the Holy Family, so bring us the Holy Family, so bring us the Holy Family and bring them right here.” Amen.