Is it Advent or Christmas?

I am always of two minds at this time of year. First, the is the confusion between the church celebration of Advent, the waiting the coming of God’s Anointed King that has been fulfilled along with the waiting for that King to return that has yet to be fulfilled, and Christmas, the celebration that that King was born. We try to get to Christmas without the sense of waiting, and in the process we lose our sense of waiting for the King’s return.

Second, there is the my and the reality of Christmas itself. Jesus was born somewhere between 6 and 4 BCE. Two of our texts (Matthew and Luke) claim that he was born to an engaged woman who had yet to have sex, while that issue is not important for the other two (Mark and John). Two of our texts agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, while, again, the other two are not concerned about that, but rather focus on his being from Nazareth (which Luke and Matthew also agree with). But we have loaded a lot of mythology on top of what is said. The “eastern” astrologers or magi are made into kings and given the number three, harmless enough, I suppose, but it does tend to obscure that they were astrologers. A donkey is given to Joseph and Mary is often pictured riding on it. We do not know that they had that type of money nor is it at all sure that she would have ridden – most likely his tools and household stuff would have been on any donkey. But this overlooks another issue, that Matthew and Luke agree that she was engaged (i.e. his wife without their yet living together), not married. If that were the case at the time of the trip (which is only clearly found in Luke), then she would have traveled with her family, not with Joseph. Only if they were married would the two travel together (and we tend to read our type of marriage back into the much more distant marital relationship of that culture and time). Then we sort of invent the inn, and certainly invent the innkeeper. Luke knows about inns and uses the proper word for one in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. That is not the word used in the birth narrative, but rather the word for a lodging place. If Bethlehem was truly Joseph’s home town, as Luke claims, then he would have relatives there who would have been honor-bound to give him lodging. But such lodging was often a lean-to on the roof of the house. It is no wonder that the lodging lacked room. It would have been enough for Joseph and Mary (upon reaching Bethlehem her family would have completed the formal hand-over, for this was as much “home” as the groom had), but not for Mary and a midwife and perhaps other women helpers who needed to move about. Lacking space, they would have been offered the use of the house itself. But this is a peasant family, and the typical peasant house had one room with the bed being a raised platform in the back of the room and the open space in front where one cooked and did household chores and where the animals were kept during the night. In other words, the stable is a bit of a myth, for it supposes there was an upper class house in the area that would have a separate stable. And, of course, if one brought in the animals for the night one would have a manger or something for them to eat out of, since otherwise they would help themselves to the bed itself (which was often basically hay or straw). What does one do with a newborn? Wrap it up, of course, and put it out of harm’s way, where humans or animals will not tread on it (and while they may have left when the birth was imminent, the household would have returned afterwards, and that would have included the householder, perhaps a wife and children, or perhaps the householder was older and it was his son, son’s wife, and grandchildren who also lived there). The logical place was the “manger,” perhaps the place where newborns in peasant families were normally laid, although the baby would soon have at night beside the mother, where nursing would have been easy. (I might add that much of the above was pointed out to me in an article in New Testament Studies two or three years ago – I have embellished it a bit with my own cultural knowledge.) So there could have been an ox, if the family were that wealthy, or a donkey, but we do not know that. Perhaps there were only a few sheep or goats. Again, the myths that have grown up are not bad expect to the degree that they point away from Jesus’ class and divert attention to the “wicked” innkeeper; instead we should think of a generous, or at least culturally appropriate, if poor family living in a typical peasant house.

John, of course, ignores all of this and simply says that the Word became flesh (after which he never calls Jesus the Word any more, for the Word is no longer the Word, for it has become something that it was not, flesh, a human being). He later learn that Jesus has a mother, but never hear about Joseph. John focuses on the essential wonder: God became one of us. Matthew focuses on whether this was kosher, so to speak, and that the visitors (who could have been on that first night – since the birth was in a house not a stable, the idea that Mary and Joseph now had a house is unnecessary) were foreigners, not Jews, which anticipates the end of the gospel, Matt 28:19-20, and a few other passages within the gospel, a gospel that is very aware that Jesus saw his mission as focused on Israel (meaning Jews, not meaning all of God’s people, as Paul uses the term in “the Israel of God”). Luke is more aware of the class situation: Jesus is born to a peasant couple. No wealthy astrologers comes, but rather shepherds, who were also viewed as outcasts. Jesus, according to Luke, focused on the poor and the outcasts. And he identified with them from his birth. The problem with the nativity mythology is that it is all sweetness and light without the smells of animals, the sweat of labor, the darkness of a peasant house at night (an oil lamp may have been lit, but how much light did it give?). It ignores who rejected the baby and who accepted the baby. It ignores Jesus as one of the poor. It ignores so much that a culturally sensitive close reader of the text should notice. And we wonder why people think of Jesus as irrelevant?

Most of all it ignores the idea that he was born God’s Anointed King and that this would be threatening to Herod the Great (Matthew, who also adds that he was threatened enough to kill 20 or so children in Bethlehem, thinking that there by he would get rid of whoever it was – and there were no police to call, for the people doing the killing were the police) and that his rule would be good news to the poor and the outcasts (Luke, with his shepherds, whom we tend to romanticize, and his peasant setting), a theme that Luke will pick up again in chapter 4, among other places.

The romance and the traditional nativity scenes are fine, but distracting. They distract us from why the gospel writers bothered to tell the story. They romanticize what was anything but romanic. They miss the idea that this is an invasion, so there will be a counterattack. They distract us from what we were waiting for in Advent, a king, a divine reassertion of his government of this world, a regathering of Israel (and in the end a redefinition of Israel), an eventual purification of the Temple (which really meant a replacement of the Temple by Jesus and his community, so the new Temple is already being rebuilt, but it is a community, not a building), a destruction of the enemies of Israel (which were not the Romans, but the forces controlling the Romans and thus were destroyed without lifting a sword). They are OK as fairytales, for perhaps the Christmas story is too down-to-earth to be told to children in its harsh reality, but at some point we need to grow beyond them and see Advent and Christmas for what it really was and is, and having seen, wait appropriately for the return of the King that was born.

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About Peter H. Davids

I am Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years). I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
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