Tuesday, December 21, 2021
Katie Snipes Lancaster
Luke 2:5–7 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Reflection on the Nativity
A Joyful Noise Preschool has been telling the nativity story all December, and so last week my four year old came home proud to have been the innkeeper in the story. His line, he told me was “There’s no room but you can stay in my stable.” (Pastor-mama’s don’t get much prouder than this; he knows his bible! Thank you AJN Preschool.)
But alas (and I promise I won’t belabor this point in Sunday School) scholars try to undo our retelling of the nativity, suggesting that the Greek word katalyma means “guest room” and not “inn.” Though conventionally we may remember the place like a hotel with a no vacancy sign, it was likely that the so-called “innkeeper” was simply someone who typically had extra space in his home for guests to stay. I look at it this way; since the ancient near eastern practices of hospitality far outshine our own typically closed-door policy to strangers traveling in from afar, we can imagine anyone in Bethlehem being a perpetual innkeeper, always ready to host an out-of-towner in their small (especially by our standards) guest room. The point remains, Bethlehem is packed to the gills, all ready and willing to be counted. Mary and Joseph have nowhere else to go; the manger-adjacent living quarters will have to do, for the baby is to arrive, and soon.
Thankfully we need not readjust our vision of the nativity at every turn. Our childhood retelling of the nativity stays intact when we look at the Greek word phatne, which is translated here “manger”, and which was likely a feeding trough for the animals. Keep baby Jesus in among the hay. It was truly a makeshift delivery room. And there we are. In an instant all that the angel promised is made complete. There he is, the Christ child, the one whose kingdom will never end, tucked in and comfortable amid the uncertainties of the manger.
How do we pray here in this pressing corner of the nativity? For me I notice the way the pressures of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem fade away as we fade into this new more intimate scene. Now, the uncertainties of where they will sleep shift to the needs of a laboring mother, and then the oxytocin-induced treasuring of this smallest newest among the Bethlehemites. What was at first an empire-wide rush to get to one’s ancestral hometown quickly becomes a quiet not-yet-public receiving of new life. It helps me to remember that today, we have our own global and national worries, the ways our own lives are dictated by the communal and common work as citizens. But then we have moments where suddenly the global and national fades away and we turn toward the most intimate, to our household, our family, our immediate communities of tender love. When there is news within our household, we treasure and carry it in a sacred way, especially in those early moments when it is not-yet-public. News that we “wrap in swaddling clothes and lay in a manger” so to speak, hold as both precious and precariously life changing—admitting to ourselves that this news takes some adjustment, some improvising, some making-do as we navigate uncertainty, surprise, and the nudging encounter of the divine at the cusp of something new. What new thing is God doing in your midst?
Praying the Nativity
God, even when there is no room in the inn,
even when there is only improvised belonging,
even when uncertainty is our daily bread,
let something new be born in our midst,
something to be treasured, long awaited, blessed.