• RevShirleyMurphy

Unwrapping Christmas and Epiphany



Having been to Bethlehem and seen the cave which Christians venerate as the birthplace of Jesus, I sometimes struggle with trying to understand what happened that first Christmas night. We are told that Mary and Joseph had to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem, because it was the hometown of Joseph and the Roman were conducting a census. So off they trekked across the desert from Nazareth. When they arrived, Mary was about to give birth to the baby Jesus. Imagine that you were Joseph in this position. Your wife is about to give birth, what do you do? I suspect that we would all go to the home of our very best friends and beg a favour. We are told that there was no room for them at the inn.


The word used by Luke which we choose to translate in this instance as ‘inn’ is ‘katalumati.’ Later in the Gospel (22:11) Luke will use the same word to describe the place where the last supper will be held, there it is often translated as ‘guest room.’ We all have pictures in our minds of nativity scenes in which a friendly hotelier takes pity on Mary and Joseph and finds them a place. The truth is probably very different.


The phrase “there was no room” might be intended to convey a much more cruel fact, that not even the friends and relatives of Joseph wanted to provide shelter for him and his disgraced wife. Had the news of the pregnant Mary reached Bethlehem before the couple arrived? There is nothing juicier than a bit of gossip about an unmarried mother, such news travels faster, even in an age deprived of the telephone. The fact that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the ‘katalumati’ whatever one of those was, gives a huge insight into the attitudes of their friends and family. We can be sure of the fact that the place of birth was one which was not desirable, it was chosen because there was ‘no room’ in the place where Joseph and Mary would have chosen. This place was a place devoid of the usual comforts, because the baby Jesus was laid in a manger. Babies are not normally put into feeding troughs, a mother would only do this out of necessity. It is a striking point and no wonder that Luke mentions it three times in his nativity story. So here we have a rejected couple, giving birth in an undesirable place, finding no suitable hospitality in the hometown of Joseph. Little wonder that in the passage from Matthew 2:13-23 we read that Joseph decides to escape to Egypt. Given the lack of hospitality which Joseph has received in Bethlehem there is little reason to suppose that the couple will find protection. Any protective father would feel equally fearful for the family. Those of you who know your Old Testament will remember that Pharaoh also gave orders to kill male Hebrew infants because he was warned in a dream of a new-born Hebrew who would be threat to his kingdom. If we were to examine the language used in Exodus and in Matthew, we would see remarkable similarities. There can be no doubt that Matthew has in mind the story of Moses as he tells the story of Jesus, Pharaoh becomes Herod, whilst Moses becomes Jesus. Moses saved the people from bondage and slavery, now Jesus will save the people from their sins. Such similarities between Old Testament passages and the nativity stories in Matthew have resulted in the passage from Matthew being seen as Christian Midrash. Midrash was a way in which rabbis at the time of Jesus interpreted scripture in manner very different from our literal understanding of truth. It involved storytelling and interpreting truth in new ways from previous events. This is not to say that these events never took place. We know that killing babies was exactly the kind of thing which Herod would have done. Herod was enraged that the Magi hadn't "reported" back to him and he was prone to fly into a rage. Herod ruled from about 37BC until 4BC, (due to errors in the calendar we believe that Jesus was born about 6BC!), the Jewish historian Josephus records that Herod's later years were full of attempts to defend his throne against the Jewish Hasmoneans, the descendants of the Maccabees. This was a man who had ten wives, executed his own wife Mariamne and three sons Alexander, Aristobulus and Antipater. He had an elaborate network of spies, and he often executed people for real or imagined conspiracies against his throne. He slaughtered 45 Sadducees most of whom were members of the Sanhedrin and confiscated their property. Josephus (Jos. Ant 17.6.6) even talks about a plan, never carried out, to have all the Jewish nobility slaughtered at the time of his own death to ensure that everyone would be mourning when he died ! So we read in Matthew that Herod had a fit of rage and ordered that all of the male infants in Bethlehem under two years of age be killed. Early Christians tradition reported that perhaps 14,000 (Byzantine) or 64,000 (Syrian) babies might have died. The number is actually much smaller. Bethlehem was a small town of only perhaps 500-1,000 people, so it is possible that between 4- 20 babies might have been killed. Nevertheless such a slaughter was a most dreadful action which would have brought enormous fear and mourning to the town. We need to remember that this is the reality of that first Christmas. It will never appear on our Christmas cards and yet it is much more a feature of the birth of Jesus than the idyllic scene of ‘cattle lowing’ and a waking baby Jesus who doesn’t cry. Mary and Joseph are refused hospitality, they and the baby are now in real danger of being killed in the ensuing bloodbath. It was a very brutal Christmas in the present context of slaughter in places like Darfur, Zimbabwe and Iraq it perhaps has more to say to our world than we are prepared to allow. We are told by Matthew that eventually the family return and go to live in Nazareth. Such a detail is also important. I love the fact that wherever I go I bump into people with whom I have an instant affinity, because we immediately recognise our origins from India. Being born in India means that you belong to a very easily identifiable group, the cheery disposition, and charming accent are just two of the qualities inherent in the Indians. Indians love nothing better than sharing their good nature, culture, tradition, food and friendly humour with others who have not had the benefit of such a birthplace. However there is also a flip side, there are those who think that anybody who comes from India must be uncultured, rotten, steal and can't pronounce certain words properly. We are seldom intimidated by this behaviour and we have expressions which characterise these ignorant people.

Jesus grew up in Nazareth in Galilee. Nazareth was not far from the major commercial trade routes, only several miles from Sepphoris an important city. Yet this was a place despised by many Jewish people at the time. It was just as unlikely that a Messiah would come from Nazareth as it was for Anakin Skywalker to come from Tatooine. If a Messiah was to come from anywhere it would be Jerusalem, not the uncultured North. Quite a few things about Jesus and the Gospels start to make sense when we understand this. In John 1:46 we read that Philip found Nathanael and told him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote it is Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." The response of Nathaniel was "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" People from this northern region stood out. When Jesus was arrested and Peter was accused of being with Jesus by the servant girl, (Mark 14:67) she said, "You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus’. We all know that Peter denied any contact with Jesus, but as soon as he opened his mouth Peter gave himself away, because he would have spoken with a Northern accent! So we are told Peter is accused himself of being ‘a Galilean.’

Jesus never argued about the title, he would never shake it off, and presumably people would know where Jesus came from every time he said ‘grass.’ Jesus seemed to bear the disdain of others about his roots throughout his adult life. So it was that Pilate would have thought it a kind of joke to write ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ So Jesus was born in a land where there was trouble, tension, violence and fear. We shouldn’t dwell too much on peaceful, beautiful Christmas scenes. Jesus, the Prince of Peace was a homeless refugee with a price on his head before he had learned to walk and talk. But Matthew wants us to see that even when things are at their darkest, this is how Israel’s Redeemer was to appear; this is how God would set about bringing freedom and justice.


Tom Wright writes “No point arriving in comfort when the World is in misery.” No point having an easy life when the World suffers violence and injustice! If he is to be Emmanuel, God with us, he must be with us where the pain is. In Jesus, not despite the frantic and tragic events that happened around his birth but because of them, God is providing the salvation and rescue that Israel longed for and through that, his justice for the World.

Sources

Unwrapping the Names of Jesus - Asheritah Ciuciu

Celebrating Jesus in the Biblical Feasts - Dr. Richard Booker

Richard Ledger Sermons

Charles Roydon Sermons

Searching for Christmas - J D Greear

On the Way to Bethlehem - Hilary McDowell

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