Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Jesus of Bethlehem

One of the most common titles for Jesus in the Gospels and in the early Church is 'Jesus of Nazareth'. He is never called 'Jesus of Bethlehem'. He didn't come from Bethlehem, you see, any more than I come from Guildford, the place where I was born. He came from Nazareth. That was the place where he grew up as a child and learned to speak with a Galilean accent. That was the place where he learnt his trade and learnt about his faith. And yet he wasn't born in Nazareth. All of the Gospel writers, except St Mark, mention that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
The puzzle is, 'What was he doing there?' The Gospel writers agree that it's got something to do with King David. Jesus is a descendant of David. He may come from Nazareth, but he was born in the place where David used to live. So what's the connection between the two places? How does Jesus come to belong to both Nazareth and Bethlehem?
St Matthew speculates that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem before Jesus was born, and then fled to Egypt as refugees because the wicked King Herod wanted to kill him. Even after King Herod's death they dared not go back home, but moved to Nazareth because it was in Galilee, outside the Herod family's control.
People from Galilee were a bit suspect in Jesus' day. They were Jewish people, but only because their ancestors had converted to Judaism. And in many people's eyes that made them second class citizens. Some people looked down on Jesus because he came from Nazareth. How convenient, then, to discover that he wasn't really from Nazareth, although he grew up there and sounded like a Galilean. The New Testament agrees that his ancestors were not just Jewish, they were royals.
St Luke has a different theory about how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem. According to him, Mary and Joseph came from Nazareth, although Joseph had been born in Bethlehem and needed to go back there – with Mary, his new wife – because a census was taking place. How inconvenient for Mary, who was heavily pregnant! Later generations speculated that she could only have made it to Bethlehem if she had been able to ride on a donkey.
Unfortunately, St Luke's story falls to pieces on close examination. Quirinius was not governor of Syria when Jesus was born. He did order a census, but not of the people who lived in Judea. And even if there was a census in Judea, why would anyone bother counting people in the wrong place? Isn't the whole point of a census to find out who's actually living in a place? Why would you ask someone to go back home to be counted if they had already left home?
We shall never know for sure why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, but a more likely reason might be that they wanted to avoid a scandal. If there's a bit of doubt about exactly when a baby has been conceived, the best way to avoid wagging tongues is to go away for the birth. And what better excuse could there be to go away for a bit, than to visit your new husband's family?
Whether you opt for St Luke's explanation or St Matthew's, the Christmas story has a very contemporary feel. It's just like our Christmases. We live in complicated families where the person that children call 'Dad' sometime isn't their father, although he takes care of them like a father would. And we live in families that are often separated by long distances and where it's very complicated for people to see one another at Christmas. Sometimes they're on different continents, and can only see one another via a video link, if they can see one another at all. Sometimes we're in exile with no foreseeable hope of return to where we feel we belong. According to the first Christmas story, Jesus has been there and done that.
For St Luke a stable seemed like an extraordinary place to be born. He couldn't imagine that it would be normal for babies to be laid in a manger. The inn must have been full, he reasoned. But actually, that's not true. In Palestine, at the time of Jesus, it's probable that most ordinary people were born in the part of the house where the animals were kept – especially in winter – because it was the warmest place to go and babies need to be kept warm. Jesus was probably born in the most ordinary surroundings imaginable at the time. And, again, that gives us a link with the Christmas story. We're ordinary people, and here we are celebrating a God who comes to live in an ordinary place, in an ordinary way, with ordinary everyday folk.
St Matthew makes exactly this point when he has the wisemen go, by mistake, to the King's palace. In the end, they find Jesus not in a stable but in an ordinary house. And St Luke re-emphasises the point in a different way, when he tells us that the birth of Jesus is announced to ordinary shepherds, not to special people like priests or leaders.
The Christmas story is about the extraordinary breaking in to ordinary life so that all of us might have something to celebrate even in the darkest time of the year. If, today, people have lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas, if it has become an ordinary celebration for them, all about family and friends, and eating, drinking and being merry, isn't that – in some ways – quite appropriate because it reminds us that the birth of Jesus only becomes special when we understand that God is found in ordinary people and in ordinary places?
When we confront our own ordinariness, when we face up to our poverty of spirit, when we stop pretending about ourselves and when we get down to basics, then we find ourselves in solidarity with the saviour of the world.
Prayer of Concern
Dear Lord, it is wonderful that a tiny baby can change the world.
Thank you for the love you have shown us by giving up your only son.
We pray for those today who do not even have a stable – who are on the streets or who cannot afford to celebrate Christmas.
We pray that people of all ages, rich and poor of all nationalities, might respond to your message of love.
We praise you on this day of celebration, in the words of the angels' song:
'Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.' Amen

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