Wednesday, December 27, 2023


 Legendary Chicago newspaper reporter Mike Royko had a column that he reran in the Daily News every Christmas Eve for about a quarter of a century. It was called “Mary and Joe, Chicago Style,” and told the story of the birth of Jesus as if the titular couple had come to Chicago instead of Bethlehem. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say that things don’t go smoothly for them as they run into one bureaucratic roadblock after another. The City That Works, you know. 

     Anyway, re-reading Royko’s column got me thinking. So you could say that what’s below is “inspired by” “Mary and Joe, Chicago Style,” and also by events in my city today. Oh, and also by what happened in Bethlehem all those years ago.


The bus they put Maria and José on didn’t actually go all the way to Chicago. It was supposed to, but after 25 hours it stopped in Aurora for gas just off the interstate, and the driver told them they were at the end of the line and made them get off. Their clothes weren’t heavy enough for the windy, cloudy, 40-degree day, so they huddled together while they tried to catch a ride to the city, where they figured they could maybe find a place to spend the night.

      They were luckier than their fellow passengers; because Maria was so obviously pregnant, a truck driver heading toward the city offered them a lift. They crowded into the cab with him, Maria trying to rest in the sleeper after what she’d just endured. It was warm, at least, and before they pulled out the driver bought them sandwiches and water at the gas station.

     Bouncing along in the semi, they were the most comfortable they’d been for a long time. And the most comfortable they’d be for a long time.

     By the time they got to the city, it was getting dark. Colder, too. The driver gave them some money and dropped them off at the cheapest motel he could find: unfortunately it cost more than they had. When José asked if they could just stay for a couple of hours, the desk clerk turned up his nose at them and sent them away. After walking around for a couple of hours, Maria’s water broke. A man living in a tent at a nearby park said they could have the tent for the night in exchange for the money the truck driver had given them. 

      Maria’s baby was born in the cold, dirty tent, with José trying to keep things as warm and comfortable. They named him Jesús. None of them slept much, huddled under dirty blankets and trying to keep the cold, hungry, crying newborn warm.

     The next morning, a jogger found the little family and brought them breakfast and diapers. He helped them get to a police station, where they were told that they weren’t in the system because the bus driver hadn’t taken them to an official drop-off location in the city at the designated times. They were told they could sleep in the lobby of the station temporarily with other migrants. Someone gave them blankets, sleeping bags, pillows, and other necessities. Volunteers stopped by during the day with food and medication, and Maria got  pain reliever for the first time since the birth. They could use the restroom to clean up, and after a day or two a volunteer drove them to a place where they could have showers. 

     They had been there about a week when all the migrants were told they would have to clear out, that the city policies had changed and they couldn’t stay in the police station anymore. Because of Jesús, they were prioritized and driven to an emergency shelter, an empty brick building with boarded-up windows and paint slapped over graffiti. They were thankful for the shelter, but it was far from adequate. There was food, but much of it seemed to be old and spoiled. The peeling paint, dust, and dirt made Maria and José fear for Jesús’ health. The bathrooms weren’t cleaned regularly, and the rooms were crowded with cots, over two thousand people crammed into the shelter. There was no privacy, and noise and activity was constant. The place was always cold.

     Even more problematic was the constant coughing. Maria and José worried about the eye infections and respiratory illnesses that seemed to be constantly going around. They hadn’t been there but a couple of days when Jesús developed a runny nose, started to cough, and developed a fever. Having heard stories about kids dying in the shelters, they begged for medical attention, only to be told that they had just missed the pop-up clinic, and that it would be another four days before anyone could see them.

      Every day, José went out with some of the other migrants to try to find work to pay for medicine and other needs that the shelter didn’t provide. Some days he’d get hired for a few dollars an hour. Other times he’d only be able to beg for spare change. One day he met one of his countrymen, who had managed to get some boxes of apples (somewhere, José didn’t ask where) and told him he could sell some at an intersection and they’d split the profits. At the end of the day, he demanded all the money that José had made selling his apples. 

     There was a church near the shelter, so one day Maria took Jesús and walked down there. It was a big, comfortable building; not luxurious, but warm and inviting. There were some volunteers there getting ready for their weekly food giveaway, but they seemed too busy to strike up a conversation with Maria. She asked to speak to the pastor, and they were able to track him down. 

     He was a nice enough guy and spoke enough Spanish that they could communicate. She told him their story, and he seemed sympathetic. Then she told him who Jesús’ Father was, and she could see that she’d lost him. It was that same look in the eyes that her parents had when she told them about the dream, or whatever it was, and tried to explain her pregnancy. A mixture of concern, fear, and judgment. When she asked if they could stay, just for a little while, in exchange for some work around the church building, he just smiled sadly and shook his head no. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We’re just not equipped for that.” They had looked into it, he explained, and the city required that they be able to house 20 migrants, or they couldn’t house any. Go figure. He offered her food from their pantry, but of course they had nowhere to store or prepare anything. She noticed the nice kitchen and how much room there was in the church, but she didn’t say anything more about it, accepted the little bit of money the pastor offered, and went back to the crowded shelter.

      The pastor would think back on that young woman and her baby a few days later, when three well-dressed guys that smelled like incense showed up asking about them. But he honestly couldn’t recall enough about her story to be helpful. And he didn’t even know about the shelter just down the street. 

     That night, José pulled his cot next to Maria’s, as he did every night. They held Jesús between them and snuggled together under the blanket as best they could. And Maria sang her song, the one José loved so much, that had taken shape in her heart just a few months ago:  

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 

for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.     

     He listened to her sing, hoping he still believed it. And when they got to the last line he found that, amazingly, he did. He sang the lines with her, looking at Jesús in his mother’s arms: 

He has…lifted up the humble. 

He has filled the hungry with good things…. 

Friday, December 22, 2023

I Heard the Bells

      As we near Christmas this year, it’s with two destructive wars in the news, both between nations in which some think the other has no right to exist. People displaced by both wars stream to other countries, ours included, where they may not feel much welcome and find themselves distrusted, ignored, and actively despised.

      The governor of one of our states is using immigration issues — often involving people
looking for asylum from dangerous situations in their home countries — to stoke fear and score political points. In my own city, we find ourselves too often unable to agree on what to do about those asylum-seekers who have been brought to us. A Presidential candidate — the front-runner for one party — said this week that migrants from Africa, Asia, and South America were “poisoning the blood” of the US, the kind of language normally used by advocates of white supremacy. Some of the members of his party have called him out for those comments, but others have tried to excuse them and, according to one poll, 42% of voters are actually
more likely to support him after his words. 

     The divisions in our world — racial, political, ethnic, economic, and generational fissures — seem as wide and deep as a century and a half ago. We seem unable to agree on even the basic values; that human lives matter, that no one should have to live in fear of tyranny and violence, that freedom and responsibility must go hand-in-hand, that everyone should have access to basic needs like food, shelter, education, and health care, that those who have should share with those who don’t. 

     I’m reminded this year of the Longfellow poem set to music, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Longfellow wrote the poem after his wife died in 1861. Two years later his son, who had enlisted to fight in the Union Army in defiance of his father’s wishes, was severely wounded at the Battle of Mine Run. Longfellow wrote: 

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But the songs he heard played from “the belfries of all Christendom” didn’t match what he was seeing around him and feeling in his heart as his country tore itself apart. The carols were drowned out by the “black, accursed mouth[s]” of cannons “in the South.” So: 

In despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

This is one of those years I can relate to Longfellow. 

     Can you? The danger, of course, is that we let the hatred around us infect us, turn us, make us sufficiently afraid and angry that we take the language and actions of hatred as our own. That we demonize everyone who thinks differently from us, call them names and accuse them of evil or idiocy. That we attack everything we consider evil except the evil that has squirmed into our own hearts and is reproducing itself there.

     That isn’t the response that the coming of Jesus should instill in us. 

      Maybe we need to keep in mind the fact that Jesus came to a divided world, too. Paul writes in Ephesians 2: 

[R]emember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision”…were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners  to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once  were far away have been brought near  by the blood of Christ. 

Jesus came to a world where Jews were hated and could turn that hatred right back into the faces of the “uncircumcised” Gentiles. It was a world in which racial and ethnic supremacy was a live issue and no doubt divisions were perpetuated to try to prevent the “poisoning” of pure blood. 

      Paul reminds those who were far away from Israel and their God that they had been “brought near by the blood of Christ.” Paul didn’t care about protecting the blood of Israel. He preached that the only truly pure blood had been spilled to end the hatred between Jews and non-Jews: 

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh  the law with its commands and regulations.

Paul’s saying that Jesus died to bring about peace, that what he did tears down the walls between human beings by rendering meaningless the things that we use to set ourselves apart. In Paul’s day, Jews might have used the Law of Moses to mark themselves off as distinct from and superior to the Gentiles. Gentiles, I’m sure, had their own dividing walls. And, of course, so do we have our walls that we erect, real and metaphorical barriers by which we keep separate those who are different, not like us, and, therefore, inferior, threatening, or even evil. 

      Jesus died to destroy those barriers that we so self-importantly build to protect ourselves and to keep out those who we don’t think deserve what we have. To “protect our way of life.” To keep our blood pure. 

His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace  to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.

I guess who’s “far away” and whose “near” depends on which side of the wall you’re on, right? But Paul’s point is that whoever you think are far away from you and maybe even from God, and whoever you think are near, you’re wrong. In Jesus, there is peace — peace between human beings and God, and peace between human beings and each other. To those in Christ, whatever barriers we might put up to keep others far away are torn down. “Peace on earth, good will to man” is not just possible; it’s God’s agenda played out in Christ.

     Sometimes we try to separate issues of acceptance and justice and care for all people from the gospel. But Paul says here that Jesus didn’t just die for our individual sins. He died to redeem the sins that keep us apart and bring us together —“to create…one new humanity out of the two.” 

     You know what that means? It means that the dividing walls we’ve carried with us, dividing walls that maybe even were bequeathed to us by our ancestors, they belong to a pre-Christian time. When Christ comes, they are leveled. Done away with. And to cling to them is to cling to the old ways of hatred, injustice, and violence in the face of the love, grace, and compassion that God has given to us in Jesus. 

      In Christ, God has brought us “near.” And he offers to us the chance and the responsibility and the spiritual  power to do what we can to work out his purposes in our world — the creating of one new humanity out of the splintered, divided one that sin has created. 

     Let’s welcome the coming of Christ to heal the division in our own hearts and minds.

     And then, through words and actions of peace, let’s begin to heal the divisions that plague our world. 

Friday, December 15, 2023

Christmas Confusion: When Was Jesus Born?

      In this series on mistakes and inaccuracies in the way we retell the stories of Jesus’ birth, we’ve already seen  that Jesus probably wasn’t turned away from an inn and born in a stable. We don’t know how many Wise Men came to give gifts to Jesus, and none were at the manger.  

     In this post we’ll talk about two related Christmas myths — one that has to do with the date we celebrate Jesus’ birth, and one that comes out of that.

     First, let’s talk about Jesus’ birthday.

     We don’t know when it was. There. Done. There’s nothing in the New Testament’s stories of Jesus’ birth that tells us anything about what time of year it was. 

     We do kind of know the year. Augustus was the Emperor in Rome; Luke tells us that much. That narrows down Jesus’ birth to the range of January 16, 27 B.C. - August 19, A.D. 14.  Luke also tells us that Quirinius was governor of Syria, the Roman province in which the Holy Land was included. We’re on a little bit shakier ground there; we know that there was a census in A.D. 6, but that’s too late for the census mentioned in Luke, which is probably why Luke refers to it as “the first census,” to differentiate it from the later one that was better-remembered. 

     We know the A.D. 6 census was too late because of the third bit of historical data we have: Herod the Great was King of Judea, according to both Matthew and Luke. He was a client king of Rome, and we know he reigned from 37 - 4 B.C. We also know that Jesus was “about 30 years old” when John the Baptist baptized him and he began his work, and that John began baptizing in the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign as Emperor of Rome, which most historians estimate would have been A.D 28-29. Allowing for a few years of leeway in the estimate of Jesus’ age at his baptism, most New Testament scholars place his birth year between 6 and 4 B.C.

     But wait: Doesn’t “B.C” mean “before Christ?” How could Jesus have been born at anything “B.C.?”

     This gets complicated, but it springs from the fact that a Scythian monk named Dionysius, who lived about 500 years after Jesus, was the first one to really try to tie the calendar to his birth, and he was working with some incomplete or confused historical data. However it happened, his calculations were off by a few years. (Still, 4-6 years off isn’t too bad!)

     As to the specific date, there isn’t any solid biblical data. Could have been December 25th. (The often-quoted idea that shepherds wouldn’t have been out with their sheep in December assumes too much; the temperature right now in Bethlehem, on December 13th at 1 AM, is 53°.) Some interpreters have tried to set the time of the year from Zechariah’s temple service, assuming it was the Day of Atonement, but the text doesn’t say that it was. The fact is that we just don’t know. 

     So, how in the world did we come to celebrate Christmas on December 25th?

     Well, not all of the church has, or does. Some Christians celebrate Epiphany, on January 6. Some Christians don’t celebrate Christmas at all, precisely because the Bible doesn’t tell us when Jesus’ birth was, or even that we should celebrate it. Paul’s words probably apply here: “One person considers one day more sacred than another;  another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” Of much more concern than whether or not we celebrate December 25th as religious observance is that we choose to celebrate or not to celebrate out of reverence for the Lord, and that we not look down on Christians who make a different decision about that than we do.

     Here’s the second myth we need to consider: There’s a bit of popular “wisdom” among some Christian communities that Christmas’ origins are pagan, that December 25th is the church’s attempt to “Jesus-ify” the festivals of either Saturnalia (to honor the God Saturn) or Sol Invictus (the Sun god), and therefore Christians shouldn’t celebrate it all.

     Again, choose not to celebrate if that seems right to you, but you should know that there is no evidence that the date of December 25th has pagan origins. What is possible — though not certain — is that Christians chose the date of December 25th because of its proximity to the winter solstice, the day after which the sunlight hours begin to increase. The Romans likely chose the date for the festival for Sol for the same reason. For Christians, though, the increasing sunlight represented the light of Christ entering the world. 

     If that’s the case, then December 25th was never intended to be historically accurate, but rather theologically significant. Especially in a non-literate world, using the calendar to tell the story of the birth of Jesus literally bringing light into the world would be memorable.

     Christmas’ supposed pagan roots developed out of hostility toward Catholicism during the Reformation of the 14th and 15th centuries. It was easy to claim the Catholics had just painted a Christian whitewash over a pagan celebration to fool poor, silly pagans into becoming converts. We know, however, that December 25th was fixed as the date of Christ’s birth sometime in the early 4th century — before there was a Catholic church or Pope as we know them. 

     I think the value of Christmas isn’t in fixing with certainty the date of Jesus’ birth. As near as I can tell, that has never been its intent. Christmas is a celebration of Jesus coming into our world, becoming us, to overcome the sin that had broken us and show us what we can be. As the Son was willing to be incarnated, it’s good for us to have a date to mark on our calendars. It helps to make it real for us, maybe, to recognize that on one particular day in human history, God entered into our world in the form of Jesus to heal our disease, bear our sins, suffer our death, and bring us life. We don’t have to know the correct day. Jesus never asked us to celebrate his birthday. Certainly, many aspects of the celebration as we know it today don’t serve us well in remembering him at all. But I think we need a date on our calendars. To my brothers and sisters who might object, “We remember Jesus’ coming every day,” I’d just say, “Do we? Or are we more likely to just go about our business as usual, rarely recalling that he ‘became flesh and lived among us’?”

     But I also think it’s good that we don’t know the date he was born. Because, of course, you can’t pin God to a date. One of the things the prophets of the Old Testament mocked about idols was that you had to put them on a cart if you wanted to move them. Israel’s God had led the patriarchs to the Promised Land. He had led their descendants through the Red Sea and the desert and across the Jordan when he brought them back. He moves. You can’t hem God in, most certainly not into a square on a calendar.  When he became one of us, he did so for all of our days, our good ones and our bad ones, the ones filled with celebration, but also the ones filled with grief and pain. Or shame. Or failure. Our best days, and our worst. Faithful days, and unfaithful ones.

     I hope you’ve seen, as we’ve tried to explore some of these Christmas myths, that Christmas is an often-feeble, flailing attempt to capture something that can’t be captured — Immanuel. God With Us. This Christmas, and all year long, may you know with certainty that he is very much with you, always, in everything that you celebrate and everything that you must endure. That’s why we celebrate Christmas.  

     May you and your family know the presence of God in Jesus this season.

Friday, December 8, 2023

Christmas Confusion: We Three Kings of Orient Aren't

 If you have a nativity scene displayed at your house this Christmas, you might have something there that doesn’t belong. 

     In this series on mistakes and inaccuracies in the way we retell the stories of Jesus’ birth, we’ve already seen one way that our decorations are wrong: Jesus probably wasn’t turned away from an inn and born in an isolated stable. Now we need to talk about a couple of other examples of Christmas Confusion.  Oh, it’s nothing serious. But maybe if we dispel some of the confusion we can discover something about this story we haven’t seen before. 

     We’ll start here: If you have a wise man or two or three in your nativity scene, that’s not strictly right. There wasn’t any number of wise men at Jesus’ birth. 

     They seem to have been convinced that “the King of the Jews” had been born when they saw his star rise in the night sky, according to Matthew, , the author of the Gospel that tells us about them. I suppose it’s possible that God gave them a sneak preview. But taking the story at face value suggests that they left on their journey, at the very earliest, on the night Jesus was born. And it’s unlikely they’d start a journey that long without some planning. Unless they happened to have some gold, frankincense, and myrrh lying around, they needed time to procure their gifts. They needed to assemble supplies. You might remember that King Herod had the boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger killed, “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” By the time they got to Bethlehem, Jesus and his parents were in a house, either the house in which Jesus was likely born, or another. He might have already been walking!

    We sing a Christmas song about the visit of the the wise men — “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” It’s a good song and everything, except for the fact that the description of the main characters is entirely wrong. 

      We don’t know that there were three of them. Some traditions say there were twelve or more. Popularly, three is the number because there were three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

     The song gives specific significance to each gift: gold in a crown, because he’s a king; frankincense, to burn as a sacrifice to God; myrrh, as a perfume used to anoint the dead. Certainly that all works in the song, as a convenient way to emphasize who Jesus was, but Matthew doesn’t say any of that. All three of those items were valuable because they were rare, but also because they were useful in various ways. 

     Traditionally, the wise men have names: Melchior, a king of Persia, Caspar, a king of India, and Balthazar, a king of Arabia. I can remember, as a kid, wondering why in the world they were called “kings” in the song. It’s probably because of Isaiah 60:3, where God tells a renewed Israel, “Nations  will come to your light,  and kings  to the brightness of your dawn.” He tells them that “the riches of the nations will come” to them, and includes gold and incense in the list. 

      Matthew, who certainly isn’t shy about applying Old Testament prophecy to the events around Jesus’ birth, doesn’t explicitly quote Isaiah 60 — though who’s to say that it doesn’t fit? He certainly doesn’t call the wise men kings. He uses the word “magi,” which the NIV and some other English translations just transliterate. But the King James Version, and I guess most other English translations, call them “wise men.” 

     Magi is itself a transliteration of a Persian word into Greek. It can refer to a class of scholars/astrologers/priests from Persia, practitioners of Zoroastrianism. It stands to reason that the Magi in Matthew were from Persia, as Matthew tells us that they came “from the East,” though he doesn’t get any more specific than that. 

     They were apparently astrologers; everyone knows that they were alerted to the birth of Jesus by seeing a star “as it rose” — presumably a star they had never charted before. Astrology was a respected science in much of the world; it required knowledge of the night sky, some skill at mathematics, and in a world in which science and religion weren’t sharply delineated, it was thought to allow a person to discover the will of the gods. For this reason Magi were often in the service of kings, as were wise men in Egypt and Babylon. In fact, Daniel was  appointed chief of the Babylonian equivalent of magi

     Why the star signified to them the birth of “the King of the Jews,” we’re not told. Did they know, somehow, of Numbers 24:17? In any case, the star led them to go on a journey to “worship him” or “pay him homage.” 

     There are warnings in the Old Testament against trying to divine the will of God by interpreting omens, and it could be said that Matthew’s Magi were doing just that. (Of course, those warnings apply to Jews, not non-Jews.) Philo, a Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Jesus who lived in Egypt, used the word magi to describe the Egyptian sorcerers who opposed Moses and Aaron, and Balaam, the prophet who tried to curse the Israelites. Some ancient writers, including Philo, admired the Persian Magi. Some seemed to fear or even despise them as charlatans. 

     Still, in Jesus’ day the Magi would have been considered, at the very least, exotic. Strange, even suspicious; they were non-Jews who believed they could interpret the movements of the stars. They almost certainly worshipped other gods. But that all seems to fit with Matthew’s drift, doesn’t it? While the current King of the Jews doesn’t know where to find him and, far from worshiping him, wants to murder him, while the people close by who should have recognized him are disturbed by the news, non-Jewish, pagan sorcerers from far away travel months to honor him and bring him gifts.

     How hard it can be for God to get our attention sometimes! And other times, when our eyes are open and we expect to see him, how easy it can be notice him in the everyday events of our lives. And how easy worship can seem. Whatever the reputation of Magi in general in Matthew’s day, he wants us to join his wise men in traveling whatever distance we must and giving whatever we have to worship him.

     Interesting, too, that God reached the Magi where they were. I mean that literally, of course; they were in their home country, “in the East," when they saw the star. But I also mean it metaphorically. They were looking at the stars, so God showed them a star. They were experts in their craft, so God led them to Jesus through their craft. It doesn’t seem that God needs us to jump through his hoops. He doesn’t sit sullenly, waiting for us to find our way to him. He comes to us, where we are. Just before he tells us about the Magi, Matthew interprets Jesus’ birth in terms of Isaiah’s “Immanuel” prophecy — “God With Us.” In Jesus, God is with us. 

     I’m thinking of the way you connect a bluetooth device to a phone or computer; it has to be “discoverable.” The processor has to be able to “see” the device, and has to have the proper language to connect to it. In Jesus, God is discoverable. He makes sure to speak our language, he shows up where are, he puts himself in our line of sight. We don’t necessarily need to remove ourselves from the events of our daily lives to see him. Maybe we just need to keep our eyes open for his light as we go about our lives.

     May you be blessed this Christmas to see his light once again. And may we all bring our gifts and honor him.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Christmas Confusion -- Was Jesus Turned Away from an Inn?

Some of the best-loved stories in the Bible are the stories of Jesus’ birth. Every year, Christians revisit them. We read about how Jesus was born in a stable, maybe we see a Christmas pageant that reenacts the moment. We might hear a sermon about how the angels announced his birth to lowly, despised shepherds in the field. We sing songs, like “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” These are familiar stories, familiar carols.

     And, very often, some of the things we believe about those stories and pass on in them are, well, wrong.

     Sorry, I hate to be that guy, shooting holes in beloved stories. But the Bible doesn’t say some of the things we’ve traditionally believed about those stories. 

     Oh, I don’t think there are egregious errors in our Christmas stories. It would probably be fine if we never corrected them, honestly. The errors have noting to do with how reliable Scripture is, and they didn’t come about through people intentionally trying to deceive. Some of them came about because the stories of Jesus’ birth have been so often interpreted — in preaching, writing, and art — that some mistakes were bound to creep in. Some have to do with having more information about the language and culture of the New Testament.

     So, as we lead up to Christmas, I want us to look at a few of these Yuletide fallacies that just never seem to go away. Let’s correct them, and maybe see if there’s something more in these stories than we had imagined.

     And let’s just get the most beloved one out of the way first. That way, if you hate me and don’t want to read any more, you won’t have wasted the time already.

     Ahem…Jesus was not born in a stable.

     What’s that scraping sound? Sounds a little like…knives being sharpened? 

     Well, I’m sorry, I really am. I know you may have played the innkeeper in a Christmas pageant sometime, the one who turned Mary and Joseph away when they got to Bethlehem. Of course you probably already know that there isn’t an innkeeper in Luke 2:7, that’s a little artistic license to show how, as the King James Version says, “there was no room for them in the inn."

     Well, there wouldn’t have been an inn either. Bethlehem was near Jerusalem, by our standards, but it was not Jerusalem. And even in Jerusalem there wouldn’t have been an inn on every corner. Bethlehem wouldn’t normally have had need of an inn; in Jesus’ time, estimates are that maybe 3,000 people lived there. When people traveled to Bethlehem, they likely stayed with family or acquaintances already there. The importance of hospitality in Jesus’ day was magnified by the fact that there was no Motel 6 available.

     The translation of the KJV is an assumption; the word translated “inn” can also mean “guest room.” It’s the same word, by the way, that’s used at the end of Luke, when Jesus tells his disciples to follow a man home and ask about a “guestchamber” (KJV) where they can eat together. Wonder if it was intentional that two of the three New Testament usages of this word bookend the story of Jesus’ life in the Gospel of Luke? 

     Incidentally, Luke uses a different word when he specifically does mention an inn, in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

     So it likely wasn’t an inn that was too full for them. It was a house. The home of extended family or friends, already overextended by hosting other travelers from other places who had come to Bethlehem for the Roman census. Maybe family members had subdivided their house into sleeping quarters for travelers. Maybe they had an extra room. But whatever they had was full. As the NRSV says, “there was no place in the guest room.”

     So what about the stable? Well, again, the Bible doesn’t say “stable.” It mentions a manger, a feeding trough for animals, but it doesn’t mention a stable.  

 We know a little about houses in Jesus’ time. Average homes tended to be one room, where the family cooked, ate, and slept. (Our concept of privacy would have been alien to them.) Often there was a flat roof that provided more living (and sleeping) space. You can imagine it wouldn’t take many travelers with bedrolls spread out on the floor to fill up a house like that.

     There was one other bit of space in the house. Usually it was a little lower than the main room, with a floor that sloped toward the door. That was necessary for cleaning; this space was for animals. If a family had a goat or sheep or whatever, they would come into the house at night, or to eat or drink. They were safe there from predators or thieves. They couldn’t wander off and get into trouble. And, yes, there were feeding troughs, in the house, either cut into the floor or portable ones made of wood. 

     So what seems most likely is that instead of giving birth in a crowded room full of travelers, Mary brought Jesus into the world in the area of the house where the animals slept and ate. 

     It wouldn’t have been a “silent night,” would it, in a houseful of people, some snoring, some talking, trying to get their excited kids to go to sleep, some maybe even grumbling about the sounds of labor keeping them awake?  

     But it was a holy night. One thing about this reconstruction of the story that I like is that Mary wouldn’t have been alone. Older women who had birthed children of their own would have been there to help, as would have been the custom. Jesus would have come into the world among family — extended family, maybe even family they had never met, but family just the same. He was born in David’s city, with the tribe of Judah all around him. 

     What’s more holy than that? It’s fitting that Jesus, who came to save his people, was born among those people. That the one who never tried to look away from the need around him was born in a crowded house full of Jacob’s descendants doing what life required of them. The one who the prophet Isaiah called “God with us” was, from his birth, with people.

     If people had only known, right? If they had only known who was being born? Maybe they would have found a better place for Mary and Joseph. Then again, they were welcomed in extraordinary circumstances by an already-stressed homeowner doing their best to provide shelter and food for exhausted travelers.

     Told this way, the story of Jesus’ birth isn't about human blindness and deafness to God. It reminds us that Jesus intends to be among people. He intends to rub elbows with them, brush up against them. We don’t have to be alone to meet him; we can encounter him in crowded, loud, chaotic places where it doesn’t seem like there’s room for him. But God can and does make room.

     And we’re reminded that, if we want people to know Jesus, we can’t avoid them or hold them at arm’s length. We, too, will have to be willing to be crowded by their needs, their struggles, their impatience, their honest attempts to just get from one day to the next. If we’re waiting for the “right” moment to bring Jesus into someone’s life, maybe we’d do better to settle for the “wrong” moment. When it’s time, it’s time, no matter how crowded and chaotic life might be.

     That’s a good thing to remember this time of year. Maybe we don’t represent Jesus best by avoiding the chaos and noise and crowds of the season, but by embracing it all, welcoming it, and helping faith to be born in the middle of it. 


Friday, November 24, 2023

Dressing to See Jesus

 I’ve been seeing this thing on social media recently; you might have seen it.  

     I'm not sure what it came from. It looks like it could have been an ad, maybe for a family clothing store. Whatever its original intention, the caption that’s been attached to it leaves no doubt as to what it’s been repurposed for. Now it's become one of those "back-in-the-good-old-days" reminiscences about how people used to dress the "right" way for church.

     By the time I was old enough to have an opinion about what I should wear to church, in the mid-70s, things had changed somewhat. Like most of the men at church then, Dad mostly wore a sport coat and tie on Sunday mornings, as I recall. Mom and my sister dressed up to some degree, though by then pants were an option, in addition to dresses and skirts. (There was, I’ve been told, some difference of opinion about this among the women at church, but I guess Mom was kind of a trend-setter in that way.) 

     On Sunday morning I usually wore a “junior” version of what Dad wore. In my teen years, as things changed a little more, I could get away without a tie and a jacket. (The teen years also included my truly awful “Miami Vice” phase, which we won’t talk about except to say that I now wish someone had found something in the Bible forbidding unconstructed blazers in pastel colors, just in general.) I could wear jeans on Sunday nights and Wednesday nights. No shorts though, ever. In college, I mostly continued the jacket and tie habit. 

     When I started  as a minister 30 years ago, I usually wore a suit and tie, like most of the men at church still did. Over the years I’ve gotten a bit more casual as the rest of the church has. Now suits and ties are for weddings and funerals, and church is a lot more dressed-down.

     But that’s true in general, isn’t it? What used to be “office casual” is now just office wear. Our culture  is, in general, a lot more casual in dress. That's important to note; dress at church usually reflects larger cultural trends.

     Back to the social media post: “dressing for church like you’re going to see Jesus” is a bit problematic, isn’t it? I mean, forget for a moment the fallacy that going to church is about going to “see Jesus” at all. (Jesus doesn’t hang out at the church building all week, waiting for Sunday when he’ll finally have some visitors.) The fact is, we don’t know what people wore to see Jesus, back when they could, literally, see Jesus. A blind beggar shouted out for Jesus to heal him: we’re not told what he wore, but I picture rags. Lepers came to see Jesus; I’m just guessing they didn’t get dressed up first. Peter took his clothes off and dove into the Sea of Galilee to get to shore and see Jesus after his resurrection. Jesus doesn’t seem to have found that at all awkward. 

     We’re not told much about what Jesus wore when he was on earth, but I doubt he had a big wardrobe to choose from. He told his disciples not to give a second thought about what they would wear. He did, apparently, have one nice garment, woven in one piece. We know this because the soldiers that stripped his clothes off before they crucified him cast lots for it. When he died for us, he was stripped and exposed. 

     No, I don’t think there’s much in the Bible about how we should dress to “see Jesus.”

     When the Bible does talk about ornate clothing, it’s not exactly positive. Jesus mocked religious people who strutted around in flowing robes trying to impress everyone. He said expensive, luxurious clothing was for palaces, not for prophets. James blasted the church for showing favoritism to rich people in nice clothing over poor people in rags. 

    In one of Jesus’ most famous parables, of course, a lost son comes home filthy and ragged and his overjoyed father gives him a robe and sandals. Which maybe suggests that the important thing to remember about coming to God is that he clothes us. What we wear isn’t relevant. We’re all pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. We all need his grace, whatever designers we’re wearing. If we’re using nice clothes to try to make ourselves more acceptable to God, we should reconsider. 

     Maybe you don’t realize it, but dressing up for church is a relatively recent trend. For most of human history, most people had few garments, and they were likely handmade, worn, and more functional than stylish. Expensive clothing was a means of distinguishing social classes, worn by royalty and wealthy people. Often, in fact, people were legally banned from wearing the clothing of a higher class. 

     During the Industrial Revolution, advances in manufacturing made new clothes available to more people. The middle class that was coming into being used the new clothing they could now afford to distinguish themselves from the lower classes. That trend spread to church as well. Eventually, some preachers even began to argue that sophistication and refinement were aspects of God’s character, and so Christians should model those characteristics in their dress, especially when they came to church. 

     Well, maybe our dress at church should model other values than sophistication and refinement. 

     Maybe our dress should model authenticity. If we dressed to reflect our spiritual condition, what would we wear? Our righteousness is like “filthy rags,” after all. Let’s not try to cover ourselves with fake piety in the form of a dress code for visiting the Lord. 

     Maybe our dress should model humility. If our dress draws attention to ourselves, then maybe it’s not really appropriate if we want others, and ourselves, to “see Jesus.” Paul encouraged the church to “adorn themselves” with good deeds that give glory to God, not clothing and fashion that makes us stand out. I think that most of the time when people complain about how other people dress at church, it isn’t at all about seeing Jesus. It’s about the way they want people to see their church. It’s about pride. It’s about class. 

     Maybe our dress should model acceptance. I worry that posting stuff like this to social media sends the message that the church is for people who are able to put together a good look. What about the retired senior who doesn’t have the disposable income to wear the most stylish clothing? The blue-collar worker whose wardrobe consists mostly of, well, blue collars? The single mom raising kids on minimum-wage jobs? What about the Christian who could afford to upgrade their wardrobe, but instead feels called to use that money to care for those in need? How about the person who wants to dress in ethnic garb? Do they have a place at our church? How about the non-believer who already wonders if the church is sincere in their faith? If we send people the message, even unintentionally, that they have to think about what they wear when they come to “see Jesus,” are we actually showing them Jesus?

    Paul wrote that we are to be “clothed” with Christ. Not Armani, Hermés, Dior, or Gucci. Let’s don’t waste a second of time worrying about what clothing to wear to “see Jesus,” and instead worry about being the kind of people in whom Jesus can be seen.

     I think that’s what you’ll find in most churches; mostly people who want Jesus to be seen in them. We’ll  probably be wearing all kinds of things, but hopefully whatever we wear we’re growing into Jesus. 

     Come join us, just as you are.