One of the biggest traps in reading the bible is to do so with the twin filters of our 21st century western mindset and the wrong interpretations we've inherited from history-and the story of the birth of Jesus is one of the biggest examples of such a trap.
We've all grown up with the story-Joseph with Mary, heavily pregnant and about to give birth, arriving in Bethlehem on a donkey, to be told that the inn was full and so she had to give birth in a stable, a birth that soon had visits from shepherds and wise men. No doubt many parents, and church members generally, will see this scene acted out this week. It's so familiar, but is it the story the bible teaches?
Before I go further, I must acknowledge the debt I owe to Kenneth Bailey's book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, which first highlighted to me a number of the points which follow.
Firstly a minor point, there is no mention of a donkey in any of the gospels. Mary and Joseph may or may not have travelled on a donkey. We just don't know.
The more important point is in what happened to Mary and Joseph when they arrived in Bethlehem, Our usual understanding is that there was no room at the inn. However, consider this:
1. Would people from the Middle East be likely to leave a heavily pregnant woman without anywhere to stay? Even today, the sense of community that still exists in much of the Middle East would mean it would be regarded as a matter of shame to leave such a woman without anywhere to sleep and for her to end up giving birth in a stable. Even in our western culture, a woman about to give birth would be a matter of concern for many people if she had nowhere to go, and many would offer to help.
2. Both Joseph and Mary had family connections in the area. Joseph was returning to the town where his family originated. It would have been regarded as a matter of duty to house even a distant relative if he turned up in a town. Mary too had relatives in the broad vicinity. We know that she had previously been to visit Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea. Bethlehem is in the centre of Judea. In an emergency, Elizabeth's home would have been somewhere to divert to.
3. Joseph and Mary are likely to have had time to make arrangements for the birth. The bible does not suggest that Mary arrived in Bethlehem already about to give birth. Luke 2:6 states that, whilst they were in Bethlehem, 'the time came for her to give birth'. This could have been several days or more after their arrival.
So what did it mean when the bible states there was no room at the inn? To understand this, we have to understand the housing of the time, including the housing of animals. Simple family homes often had only two rooms. One was effectively a guest room. The other, larger room was a family room where the family ate, slept and lived. Only rich people had separate stables to keep animals in at night. Most people had a part of their living room that was lower by several feet, and it was into here where animals were driven at night. At the edge of the raised section where the family lived, there would be several managers, at the right height for animals to be able to eat from at night.
The other aspect we need to understand is what is meant by 'inn'. The Greek word used in the story is katalyma. This is not the word used for a commercial inn. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the injured man is taken to a panndocheion, which is a commercial inn. Katalyma simply means 'a place to stay'. Luke 22 uses katalyma when, at the time of the Last Supper Jesus asked 'where is the guest room where I am to eat the passover?' If Luke used katalyma to mean 'guest room' in Luke 22, it seems reasonable to assume he also used it with this meaning in Luke 2:7, where we are told that Jesus was placed in a manger because the guest room was full.
What looks likely to have been the case was that, when Joseph and Mary arrived, the guest rooms in all houses were full because people were already staying in it (probably due to the census) and so a family, recognising their duty to care for both a relative and a heavily pregnant woman, invited Joseph and Mary to join them in the family room. When Jesus was born. Mary, away from anything she had prepared at her own home, used the manger to put the baby in as it was next to where she was.
Finally, consider the wise men, It is firstly interesting to note that Matthew tells us that, when they arrived, they entered the house where they saw Mary and the baby, underlying that Mary and Joseph had somewhere to stay, but the other key question is when did they arrive? We're told in Luke 2 that the shepherds arrived the same day as Jesus was born, but for the wise men no such date is given. What we do know in Luke 2:16 that Herod, when he realised that he had been tricked by the wise men, ordered that all of the boys aged under 2 were to be killed. If the wise men had arrived the night of the birth, even allowing a few weeks/months for Herod to realise that the wise men were not returning, why did he order boys under 2 to be killed? Why not boys under 1? The most likely explanation would seem to be that the wise men visited Jesus some months after his birth.
So, rather than a pregnant woman arriving on a donkey being left out in the cold by a heartless inn keeper and an equally heartless community, we instead have the community, very likely to be poor, and full of people visiting for the census, doing their best to do their duty, and a family placing their own small home under greater pressure by finding a place for the woman and her husband to stay and also where she could give birth.
An often overlooked message of the incarnation is how it reinforces that the church is to be a community, and one that especially cares for the poor, even when it is inconvenient.
Many churches care deeply about being biblically accurate, even when it involves putting to one side cherished traditions and misconceptions. It would be great to see that principle applied to how nativity stories are told and acted out.
Tuesday, 13 December 2016
Sunday, 3 January 2016
Global Radio is a UK media group that owns stations such as Capital, Heart, and Smooth Radio. It is known for running very tightly formatted stations that play a relatively small number of songs regularly throughout the day and encourage their presenters to only give short links between the music. BBC national stations in contrast, whilst they do have their own formats, tend to play a much more diverse range of music and encourage their presenters to be creative. For example, in the last 30 days, Smooth Radio played 797 different tracks whilst its main rival BBC Radio Two played 4222 different tracks. All this information can be found at http://comparemyradio.com/compare where much fun can be had comparing all kinds of different stations. (Pause whilst my wife says I'm sad for finding such sites fascinating.)
I would argue that the biblical approach to worship* involves something far closer to the BBC approach, but too many churches have worship that is closer to Global Radio. The bible sets out that worship when the church comes together is meant to be a creative experience with everyone having different gifts they can contribute. 1 Corinthians 14:26 says 'when you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation'. That suggests that each time a church worships together, there should be different elements in the mix, as different people bring different contributions as the Spirit leads. The same should be true with songs with the Bible again showing a huge range of diversity as a model. Psalms alone has 150 different expressions of it, with others scattered throughout the bible. On that basis, we should seek to be diverse and creative in the songs we sing.
However, I would have to say that the experience I come across in many churches is different. Like many people who have been Christians for any length of time I have upwards of several hundred worship songs in my memory. I might need the words projected on a screen to jog my memory to the lyrics of some, but I would them in an instant. However, go to many churches for three or four weeks and you will hear the same 15-20 songs being used week after week. This isn't just a concern over lack of creativity. I think it also affects how the congregation engages with worship. Am I the only one who finds it incredibly difficult to keep my concentration, or for lyrics to speak meaningfully to me, when I am singing a song for the eighth time in the last ten weeks?
A similar concern exists over to what degree the principle of every having a contribution to bring is reflected in many churches, and there is a responsibility both on those leading worship and those in the congregation in this regard.
For those leading worship, it is so important to leave space between songs to allow contributions to come out. It is so frustrating during worship times when the aspect in relation to the songs is great, but songs are all it consists of. As soon as one songs finishes, the next starts, with no room for anyone to participate (or a variation, even more frustrating, is when there is a pause between songs for the worship leader to pray aloud themselves, but to then immediately launch into another song without waiting to see if anyone else wants to contribute).
A key plea to worship leaders in this regard is, please don't be afraid of silence-and from the times I've led worship myself I know how difficult it can be to judge how long to leave a silence, but those silences fulfil two important purposes:
a) even for those of us who are used to bringing contributions, it can take a few seconds to open our mouths whilst we try and figure out 'is this the right moment to bring this? Does it fit with the flow and themes of the worship at this point? Have I got this right?' It can be really frustrating to have taken a moment to ask these questions, only to find that before you can open your mouth, the worship leader has decided that, as there has been more than five seconds of silence, they had better start another song. This is all the more important in encouraging those unused to bringing contributions to step out, as they may well need more time to pluck up their boldness and speak.
b) it is in silence that new phases of how the Holy Spirit is moving in a meeting can sometimes develop. People starting to sing out in tongues, or a more general sense of the Holy Spirit at work develops. These sometimes take moments of silence for them to emerge and grow.
However I did say that there was also a responsibility on those in the congregation, and that is in believing that God really meant what He said in saying that when we come together, every one of us has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation, and that bringing these contributions is so that the church may be built up. If you are someone who does not regularly contribute during your church's worship times, can I encourage you to believe with confidence that God really does equip you during worship to have something to bring, and that what God is giving you to bring is something that the church needs to hear in order to be built up.
We have an endlessly creative God and we should reflect that in our worship (even if you like Global Radio).
* In raising the subject of worship, I'm aware that some will argue that worship is a seven days a week, whole life issue and not just about a church meeting-and I agree with them. However, the Bible does set out the particular benefits, and importance of, worshipping together, and the expectation that God will give us all gifts to use during such times. Some have adopted the term 'sung worship' to differentiate this from 'whole life seven days a week worship'. I've avoided using 'sung worship' in this article, for the reason that it falls into the trap of suggesting that worship together is all about songs whereas, as discussed above, it is about bringing many more gifts than just song.