Archives For Christmas

Our local newspaper recently ran a cartoon featuring a turkey that had been trampled to death by hooves. One bystander said to another, “It looks like Thanksgiving got run over by a reindeer.”

Thanksgiving Got Run Over By a ReindeerIt seems like every year the Christmas decorations and merchandise in stores and coffee shops come out a little earlier. No problem there. We all love the cozy nostalgia and holiday beverages that the Christmas season brings. We can’t really extend the holidays into January, because keeping the holiday décor on display after the new year comes across as lazy. So why not start the celebration early?

I honestly don’t have a problem with Christmas décor showing up before Thanksgiving week. But I do wonder what it means.

I’m just speculating here, but it does seem to say something about the way we view holidays. As far as I can tell, people aren’t putting their Christmas decorations out early. Corporations are doing this. It’s no surprise that when corporations look at a holiday, they see dollar signs. The question for them is not what the holiday means (unless this helps their marketing strategy) or how it might best be celebrated (unless that means celebrating with their product). The question is how they can make the most money off of the holiday. Smart. Many companies do this well and reap the financial rewards.

Though many of us do get caught up in the materialistic exploitations of the holidays, human beings tend to view holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas differently than corporations see them. To us, these are opportunities to take a break from work, to spend some time with family and friends, and to celebrate life and love.

If we all viewed holidays this way, we would take them one at a time, treasuring each one until we are forced back to the office. We would enjoy Thanksgiving, then head back to the business of our daily lives, then begin to look forward to everything that Christmas means and brings.

And yet Christmas is in full swing before the first Thanksgiving travelers have hit the road. What do we do about this?

I think we take it with a grain of salt. Go ahead and enjoy the Christmassy atmosphere our corporate friends have brought us so early. Feel free to get in the “Christmas spirit” even. But let’s not forget what makes our holidays great.

The presents we love shopping for would be meaningless without loved ones to give them to. Our days off would be boring apart from the realization that we are more than the goods we produce and services we provide. The nostalgia we feel around Christmassy décor would not exist without the fond memories of real people, real life, and true love that it conjures in our minds.

So let’s celebrate Christmas as early as we can, but let’s not let the CEOs of the world make us believe that their products and decorations are the holidays. If that were true, then we would have just lost Thanksgiving. No, what the Christmas vendors bring us are byproducts—commemorative artifacts testifying to the goodness of life as celebrated at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Let’s not confuse marketing campaigns with the substance of these wonderful holidays.

 

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7)

Sometimes we’re so familiar with the story, that we don’t see its scandal. Mary was found pregnant out of wedlock in a culture where such shameful deeds were intolerable, and her “Holy Ghost” story would only intensify the ridicule. Instead of stoning his fiancée, Joseph decided to divorce her, but God stopped him in his tracks and convinced him that Mary’s ghost story was true. So the two would have to endure the shame once Mary’s belly could no longer be hidden.

Luckily, Rome called for a census, which required the couple to head out of town to their village of origin: Bethlehem. The tiresome journey provided a soothing respite from public shame. But once they entered Bethlehem, judgmental eyebrows were quickly raised, and the scandal continued. Popular renditions of the Christmas story reflect little historical truth. Jesus was probably not born outside of a commercial “inn”—despite our English translations. The word kataluma can refer to an ancient motel, but its usual translation is “spare room,” not “inn.” It’s also unlikely that there were any commercial inns in a small village like Bethlehem, so the translation “spare room” is probably what Luke intended. So, when Mary and Joseph sought shelter in their hometown of Bethlehem, they probably went to the house of a relative and asked to stay in their “spare room.”

“Sorry,” the relative said, no doubt eying Mary’s expanded waistline. “There’s no space in our kataluma. You’ll have to sleep out with the animals.”

“But Sir,” Joseph pleaded, “my wife is about to have a baby, and…”

“Fiancee! Joseph. She’s your fiancée, not your wife,” his relative interjected with obvious disapproval. “You can sleep out with the animals, if you want. But you cannot come under my roof.”

Extending hospitality to the unwed couple would also extend approval to their actions, and the whole village would soon find out. Joseph’s relative could not risk the shame. So Mary and Joseph remained outside in the courtyard where the animals were kept at night. And then came the pain. Contractions began to knife their way through Mary’s abdomen, while nervous excitement shivered up Joseph’s spine. The piercing pain pacified the stench of the excrement wafting through the air. And the shame of scandal, ridicule, and rejection was drowned out by the jubilant hope of a newborn child.

No doctor, no instruments, no sanitation, and certainly no painkillers. Childbirth in the first century was a risky event. But God endured the shame, the scandal, the risk in order to bring us back to Eden. As Mary grunted and pushed, heaven came crashing down to earth, and Joseph was there to receive him. First some hair and then the head. Shoulders and arms, legs and feet. The One who made the stars would pass from the uterus, down through the vaginal canal, and into Joseph’s nervous hands. His umbilical cord was cut, the blood wiped from his eyes, and remaining amniotic fluid extracted from his lungs. Up and down, the breath of life expanded his lungs, and an urgent wail filled the courtyard and spooked the sheep. After nursing the child to sooth his fear, Mary wrapped her son in cloth and with no crib nearby, she laid him in a feeding trough.

A feeding trough. The One who spoke the universe into existence, who reigns over the nations, who commands history, who created you and me in His own image—chose to be laid in a stone box where animals eat grain. In doing so, God’s relationship with humanity was brought to an uncanny level. The One who made the stars would suckle the breast of a 13-year-old unwed Jewish girl in a small village of a backwater province of the Roman empire. No pomp or prestige, parades or accolades, God stormed creation through a whisper—the illegitimate womb of a young Jewish girl. Shame, scandal, rejection, pain, fear, and humility clothed the birth of Christ, and this is exactly the way He planned it.

Why?

Because you cannot care for those who are suffering without entering into their pain. God cares for you. And he knows your pain. Turn to Him. He’s been there.

Two Types of Christmas

Mark Beuving —  December 21, 2011 — 2 Comments

Christmas is a culturally rich season. We take part in a number of meaningful rituals during the month of December: following advent calendars, drinking egg nog, sending and receiving Christmas cards, giving and receiving gifts, shopping, drinking peppermint mochas, sitting on Santa’s lap, and on and on and on it goes.

We are so familiar with these rituals and their significance that every year we navigate the cultural landscape with skill (and a significant amount of stress). But sometimes it takes an outside perspective to help us see our traditions for what they are. Missionary and theologian Paul G. Hiebert describes an eye-opening Christmas experience he had in South India:

“The Christmas pageant was over—or so I thought. Christ’s birth to Mary and Joseph had been announced by angels, dressed in pure white. Their faces were brown and their message in Telugu, for we were in South India. The shepherds had staggered on stage, acting half drunk, but herding the smaller children down on all fours as the sheep. Not quite what I was reared to expect, but something I could explain in terms of cultural differences. Unlike Palestinian shepherds, who are known for their sobriety and piety, Indian shepherds are known for their drink and dancing. But the message was not lost, for at the sight of the angels the shepherds fell to the ground, frightened sober.

“The wise men and Herod had appeared on stage in regal splendor. Now we sat cross-legged and crowded, as the shepherds, wise men, and angels gathered with Mary and Joseph around the manger. A fine ending to the Christmas story. Suddenly, out jumped Santa Claus! With a merry song and dance, he began to give out presents to Jesus and the others. He was the hero of the pageant. I sat stunned.” (Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985) 13.)

As Christians, we want our main focus to be on the birth of Jesus. But we also take part in a number of cultural rituals without giving it much thought. Paul Hiebert’s explanation for why the Indians blended the Christmas story with Father Christmas is helpful here. Hiebert says that Westerners really have two types of Christmas. On the one hand, we have Jesus, and on the other, Santa Claus. We know that these two types of Christmas are distinct, so we don’t have trouble sorting things out: shepherds, angels, stars, and wise men go with the Jesus version of Christmas, and stockings, shopping, elves, and reindeer go with the Santa version.

Hiebert wasn’t trying to say that we should boycott the cultural traditions that are not explicitly Christians. Instead, he was pointing out a danger. When the missionaries who had gone to South India before him presented Christmas, they failed to differentiate between the two types of Christmas that Westerners celebrate. It really wasn’t the Indians’ fault, they were simply portraying Christmas as it was taught to them.

What do we do with this? Hiebert offers us a good lesson in communication. We can and should participate in the culturally rich Christmas season. But we should also be careful about what our rituals and traditions are communicating. And just like every day of our lives, if Jesus isn’t the hero of our Christmas, then we have missed the point.

As many of you are well aware, Christmas is a time of conflicting emotion. I get super excited as I think through Jesus’ incarnation and the implications of that wonderful event. I also get incredibly frustrated at the gross consumerism demonstrated by such a majority of society. So in light of the season, here is the question:

Which of these is most appropriate?

To graciously decline any gift offered to you (you certainly have plenty) or as an alternative, suggest that friends and family make a donation of what ever amount they would have spent on a gift to a charitable cause?

Or

Accepting the generosity of others and allowing gifts to be bestowed upon you. Knowing that you do not need them, but allowing others to bless you and give you something you do not deserve?

Which is best? Have at it…

Was Jesus born at an inn?

Preston Sprinkle —  December 15, 2011 — 5 Comments

Despite what is ubiquitously portrayed in nativity scenes, Christian folklore, and every English translation that I’m aware of, there’s a good chance that Jesus’ parents never visited an inn in Bethlehem to give birth to the Christ-child.

Here are three reasons why.

First, Bethlehem was a very small rural village at this time—population of only a few hundred people. Historically, then, it would be extremely unlikely that there was a commercial inn at such a small village. Inns existed in cities that attract travelers (merchants, religious pilgrims, etc.), or because the city is on major travel route and far from a large town. Bethlehem is neither. So it’s unlikely that there was some sort of ancient Motel 6 doing business in the village.

Second, unlike our American culture, families in ancient Palestine would be expected to host relatives during their travel. Since Joseph and Mary are originally from Bethlehem, they would have had lots of near and distant relatives there to stay with. Culturally, then, even if there was a Motel 6 in Bethlehem (which is unlikely), it would have been incredibly offensive for this Davidic couple to seek shelter there. They would have gone straight to the house of a relative.

But doesn’t the Bible say that they stayed at an inn? Well, not exactly.

Third, Luke 2:7 says: “Then she gave birth to her firstborn Son, and she wrapped Him snugly in cloth and laid Him in a feeding trough—because there was no room for them at the inn” (HCB), but the word for “inn” is kataluma, which can refer to a number of different types of lodging places. It can mean “inn” in the traditional sense, but it can also refer to a room (or spare room) in a house, and this latter meaning is probably what’s intended here in Luke 2. Luke does actually refer to an inn later in Luke 10:34 (where the Samaritan brought the half-dead man), but he uses a different word there: pandokeion (“inn”) and not kataluma. In fact, the only other time Luke uses kataluma is in Luke 22:11, where it clearly means a room in a house, not an inn.

Therefore, once we dig deeper into the historical, cultural, and linguistic background of Luke 2, it’s likely that Joseph and Mary went to the house of a relative to find refuge and deliver the child. However, upon arriving, they discovered that there was no room for them in this house—perhaps other relatives were already taking up the spare room, or perhaps it was a small, one room-house and it was already too crowded. Either way, Joseph had to take his pregnant wife to the stench-filled courtyard where the animals were kept to deliver the Messianic King.

Got time for some reasoned speculation?

If this interpretation is correct, and there is every reason to believe that it is, then why would the relatives of Joseph and Mary not give up their home or spare room to let Mary—a woman 9 months pregnant—give birth to her child? The text doesn’t say, but it is quite odd that Mary is forced to have the baby with the animals. It’s not certain, but perhaps there is a subtle critique of such an inhospitable act. Maybe the family knew of Mary’s reputation as a whore—an unmarried 15 year old carrying a child—and so they kicked her to the curb, or out with the animals, to show the surrounding villagers that they did not approve of her immorality.

Now, none of this is conclusive, but the historical scenario does suggest it. If so, this gives deeper meaning to what John 1:11 will say of Jesus: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” This is of course true of Jesus’ rejection by the Jews, but it may well be foreshadowed here in his birth, when we was rejected by his own relatives before he was even born.

Another proof, if proof were needed, that the incarnation was a radical act of grace, penetrating the depths of humility and shame.