Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A Family Christmas

It's nearly Christmas.  Most of us are getting ready to hang out with our extended family, while those of us who are a long way from family are most likely lining up surrogates to stave off the loneliness.  This has come to be what Christmas is about for most Australians.  So with that in mind, here's a little Christmas gem from Kenneth Bailey's marvellous book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.

In our traditional view of the Christmas story, based on Luke 2:1-7, Joseph and Mary set off for Bethelehem.  When they arrive, however, the inn is full and they are forced to sleep out in the stable, where Jesus is born.  The story has become a symbol of Jesus' poverty and his status as a social outcast.  In Bailey's view it is also very European, and is a very unlikely scenario in the context of Middle Eastern culture. 

Firstly, Joseph was a descendent of David, going to the City of David.  Hence he almost certainly had relatives in town and these would have been honour bound to give he and his heavily pregnant wife hospitality.

Secondly, even if Joseph had no relatives, the Middle Eastern norms of hospitality dictate that they would have been offered room in someone's house.  In fact, they would probably have been besieged with offers and the main risk would have been offending the wrong person.

Thirdly, should all this fail then Mary's relatives, Zacharias and Elizabeth, parents of John the Baptist, also lived in "the hill country of Judea" where Bethlehem is located - so why not go to them for shelter?

Here's Bailey's solution to the dilemma.  Most English translations say something along the lines of, "she wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."  Notice no mention of a stable, only a manger - i.e. a trough or container for animal feed.  He says there are two words in Greek which are translated as "inn".  The first, pandocheion means a commercial inn or hotel.  This is the term used for the place the good Samaritan took the wounded man.  Luke 2:7, on the other hand, uses the word katalyma, which is a more generic term for a "place to stay" and could be translated "guest room". 

The typical Middle Eastern village house of someone wealthy enough to have a guest room is built along the lines shown in Bailey's illustration below.


The guest room was kept for visitors, who in Middle Eastern society would be frequent.  The family would all sleep together in the main room.  Their animals would live outside in the daytime, but at night they would be brought into the "stable", open to the main living room but on a lower level so the animals couldn't actually climb up and sleep in the family bed.  Their food would be placed in the mangers dug into the floor of the family room as shown.  Their presence inside would keep them safe and help warm the house on those cold winter nights.  

So in saying "there was no room in the katalyma" Luke was saying that the family who offered hospitality to Joseph and Mary, whoever they were, already had another guest.  Perhaps this was someone of higher social standing than Joseph - say, an elder member of the family - or perhaps they just arrived first.  No matter, though, Joseph and Mary were welcome to stay in the family room.  No doubt when the actual labour took place, Joseph and the other men would have been shuffled off somewhere while the midwife and the village women helped Mary.  Then when Jesus was born he would have been wrapped up nice and warm and put in the soft straw of the manger at the end of the room, near the warmth of the livestock.

Jesus was not born in a palace, amidst splendour and fine living.  But he was born in the midst of a family, whether his own relatives or hospitable strangers.  He was surrounded by love and care, warmed by a press of people and livestock. 

May you experience the same this Christmas.  Livestock are optional.

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