My mother loved an audience. She relished telling us about her ancestors and their roles in the establishment of our nation. When the immediate and extended family was all together, such as for Christmas dinner, she might tell of her great-great-great grandfather the Captain Thomas Mendenhall. His ship, she was certain, was “the first to fly the American flag in a foreign port.” Now she wasn't sure of the date or the version of the flag since there were several in those early years, but she was clear that HER ancestor was the first! My father who loved to tease her would hint at scandal by responding, “Yes, but the truth be known - he was a pirate!”
Luke might have been a little like my mother. By the time he wrote down the story of the birth of Jesus, some seventy years after the fact, he was putting pen to parchment the details of a story that had been told and retold over two or three generations. There was no internet method to fact check the exact dates of the census and the reign of Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. Current day historians can't verify exactly when this happened but Luke's readers would get the general idea of the timing, the political conditions and the importance of the family line of David to this event.
If you have ever gathered with aunts, uncles and cousins at Gramma and Grampa's house for Thanksgiving or Christmas then you can get an idea of what happened next. A reunion was required by the government so Joseph's relatives came from all around the area to the family home in the small town of Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph had a long way to travel from Nazareth in Galilee. Under normal conditions they might have been the last to show up. However, Mary was nine months pregnant so she was tired and having trouble sleeping, her back hurt, contractions may have started and likely they had to stop often as nature called from all that bouncing along on a donkey. When they finally arrived, each nook and cranny of the house was filled. Luke's phrase that we often hear as “no room in the inn,” can also be translated from the Greek as, “no place for them in the living space.” Imagine a house with the living quarters upstairs above the area for the animals – ox, donkey, chickens – and a feeding trough dug into the stone wall. There are homes like that in the area today. In addition to the probability that all the beds were taken, Joseph's family might have wanted them to have some privacy from gawking nieces and nephews during the final hours of her labor and delivery.
Then it happened! The birth of which the prophets dreamed and the angels told, a Savior, a King but the animals had to give up their feeding dish to make a place for him to sleep. What a scandal! Only the ox, the lamb and donkey knew that they sacrificed for him. There was no angel chorus for the family upstairs and no bright star over Bethlehem that night; no fancy gifts, just a simple birth. What a lackluster way to welcome a king! A Baby in a manger – whose food would he be? Was it God's little joke for the Shepherds to see – a sign for them the angel said, a baby lying in a feeding trough? After visiting and verifying for themselves that it was true, off they went, “glorifying and praising God.” What was it about this baby in a manger that caused them to shout, that convinced them he was so special? What was it about seeing a baby in a feeding trough that helped them understand what it meant to be Christ the Lord and cause them such excitement?
Shepherding can be a lonely existence wandering the hillsides searching for nourishment for their sheep and for themselves, watching the sky and the stars for a direction for their days and nights and lives. They likely had an incredible sense of awe and wonder of the universe and appreciation of the Creator God. Yet, as we do from time to time, they may have hungered for relationship, for meaning, for love. That baby in a food bowl triggered a response to their inner hunger, a willingness to be vulnerable and loving, a hope and vision for the future for their lives and their world. They experienced the nurture and love of Jesus right then, even as an infant, God with them in that smelly room below the living area. They recognized the miracle in the event, the longing that was filled and couldn't help but shout it to the rooftops.
Their hunger was answered with God's love in this baby Jesus who would become in ministry the Bread of Life. He would bring good news to the oppressed and share loaves and fishes with the hungry as he embodied God's love for all people. He would turn water into wine for the thirsty and become food for the soul of people who hunger and thirst for a relationship with God. This baby born in a manger grew to share dinner not only with his followers but with sinners and tax collectors and to fill them up with God's love. Two times, he fed 5000 men not counting the women and children, with baskets of food left over and more of God's love overflowing. And with his disciples he shared the bread saying, “This is my body broken for you. Do this remembering me.”
For what do you hunger this year? Can we make room in our hearts and lives for him to be born within us and fill us up? The story of Jesus' conception by the Holy Spirit draws skepticism in our current day culture. However, as theologian Marcus Borg has written, that is how it always happens. Christ is born in us through the union of God's Spirit and our flesh. Did it happen only once upon a time? No, it happens again and again and again.
So, as you celebrate Christmas tonight and tomorrow, examine your own hungers and let your heart prepare room for him to fill you up. May the miracle of his conception and birth happen again within you. When you gather with family and friends, at the Voyager-Carmel Shelter, or talk by phone with loved ones long-distance, may God's love born in you be your gift to them. Over ham, turkey or pecan pie, listen to the stories they tell, not the facts but the truths, even if you have heard them before. May your hunger be filled with God's love shared through them and may it be present with you throughout the New Year. Merry Christmas!
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