Tue, Dec 25, 2012

Neither 'inn' nor out (there)

Christmas Day
“Pope bans Christmas”––
one newspaper headline screamed provocatively.
A little more circumspect, another declared:
“Killjoy Pope crushes Christmas nativity traditions”––
claiming that he had disparaged such things as animals in nativity scenes.
Some online blogs branded him “the new Grinch that stole Christmas”…
while another placed him “top of the grumpy list for two thousand and twelve”.
All of which forced the Catholic media apparatus to leap into action.
No, the pope hadn’t banned Christmas.
Nor had he banned animals from nativity scenes.
It was all a misunderstanding.
Last month, Pope Benedict published a book on the ‘Infancy Narratives of Jesus’.
In it, he stated a number of things that seemingly flew in the face of tradition:
that there is no reference in the gospels to the presence of animals in the stable;
that the birth of Jesus did not, in fact, take place in a stable…
and that it was more likely a cave.
One professor of Church History commented,
“I think what people need to realize here is that the pope is trying to be as historical as he can be…he wants to see the biblical narratives as history, where possible, but he is also trying to explain details in narratives that cannot be historically verified”.
What Pope Benedict has attempted to do––
at least in this book––
is admirable.
But he doesn’t go nearly far enough.
In fact, in Luke’s birth narrative––
which we heard read this morning––
there is precious little that is ‘historical’.
Certainly not by modern standards of history writing.
This story was crafted and composed at a much later date––
anywhere up to a hundred years after the event.
It was an attempt to convey a sense of who Jesus was and what he meant––
informed and shaped by their experience of his life, and death, and his somehow being alive again.
This story is a potent mix of metaphor and myth, symbol and sign, all wrapped up in poetry.
And yet, we seldom actually read the story as story.
We tend to conflate Luke’s and Matthew’s stories… throw in bits of even later tradition…
and creative reinterpreting.
So, this morning, let’s put aside all of that.
Let’s dwell on the guts of the story that Luke told:
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn”.
Despite our traditions…
our Christmas carols…
and our English translations––
in the original Greek of the New Testament…
it doesn’t say, “there was no room for them in the inn”.
On that point, Pope Benedict is quite right.
For a start, there would not have been any inns in Bethlehem.
It was only a small town…
and it wasn’t located on any main roads.
Rather than “inn”, the word ought to be translated as “guest room”––
that is, an additional room in an ordinary house.
Luke wants us to imagine that Mary and Joseph have gone to stay with their extended family…
with distant relatives.
But, because they’re the poor, hick cousins––
compounded by the shame and stigma associated with her “condition”––
they’ve been relegated to the part of the house where the animals sleep at night…
because the house’s guestroom would have been given to relatives of higher social standing.
The birth, then, took place in a very ordinary way…
in a very ordinary setting…
right in the middle of a very ordinary house.
“So what?”––
I hear you ask––
“What difference does that make?”
Quite a lot really!
The scenario, as we’ve traditionally constructed it…
pictures poor Joseph and Mary traipsing through the city…
knocking on door after door…
only to be turned away by greedy, heartless inn-keepers…
until they find one who’s willing to rent them a stable—
no doubt at an inflated price.
It reeks of all that is seemingly wrong with the world––
with our world––
a world where crass commercialism and consumerism…
and mercenary businessmen hold sway.
It’s symbolic of the cruel and heartless marketplace…
the uncaring system.
And that’s precisely how the expression, ‘no room at the inn’ is so often used––
whether it be in the story of a judge in California who banned a nativity scene from a public park…
or in laments about homelessness and the lack of adequate public housing.
It speaks of the ‘haves’ over and against the ‘have-nots’…
the powerful over and against the powerless…
the comfortable over and against the destitute.
Indeed, one theologian suggests that, in today’s economy…
the innkeeper represents the one percent––
the über-rich and powerful…
people like Gina Rhinehart and Rupert Murdoch––
who use their wealth and power to manipulate and control the rest of us…
the other ninety-nine percent.
When we picture Luke’s nativity scene as involving greedy, heartless innkeepers…
turning away a pregnant, peasant girl…
and her poor, white trash, partner…
that’s what we get:
‘them’ and ‘us’.
And yet, in many ways, perhaps we also like it like that.
After all, the traditional picture creates a certain ‘distance’.
It gives us some villain to blame…
and it lets us off the hook.
But when we speak of a ‘guestroom’ rather than an ‘inn’––
when we picture it as ordinary folk…
who are struggling to accommodate and put up with their embarrassing relatives––
it’s another thing altogether.
It’s no longer the fault of a heartless and inflexible system.
It’s no longer ‘out there’.
It throws it all back onto us.
It becomes deeply personal.
It holds us accountable.
It reminds us that the problems of the world are not ‘out there’…
but ‘in here’––
that the cruelty and heartlessness of the system spring from us…
from each one of us.
It confronts us with the values that we hold…
and with the choices that we make.
It confronts us with our attitudes and perceptions…
about who deserves a place…
or who deserves our help.
But it also reminds us that the solution to those problems lies with us, too.
As Gandhi exhorts us, “we need to be the change we want to see in the world”.
But, even more than that…
this reconstructed nativity picture confronts us with the question of where and when, and––
in fact––
in whom, God is to be encountered.
Because, subtly or not, we generally work with an image of a God who is ‘out there’––
distant and remote––
a puller of puppet-strings…
a fickle and capricious master.
God is the ‘other’…
who intrudes into our world like a pregnant peasant girl knocking on an inn door.
But, when we hear Luke’s nativity story as it was intended to be heard—
taking place in an ordinary house…
taking place in what could be our house…
it suggests that––
on the contrary––
God is one of us.
God is among us.
God is within us.
Incarnation doesn’t happen ‘out there’––
or even ‘back then’, as an historical event––
it happens among us…
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