Sermon for Christmas
December 25, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
If you’ve invested in a nativity set, I’ve got some bad news for you. Even if the figures are historically and ethnically accurate, which is far from guaranteed, the scene itself bears no resemblance to the setting of Jesus’s actual birth. First of all, the translators did us a great disservice by using the word “inn.” The Greek word St. Luke used is katalumati, and it means, “the spare or upper room in a private house… where travelers received hospitality and where no payment was expected.”* When St. Luke talks about a commercial lodging establishment, where the Good Samaritan took the man who’d been beaten and left for dead, he uses a different word, but interestingly, he tells us that the Last Supper took place in a katalumati.
Chances are, in Bethlehem Ss. Mary and Joseph simply followed well-established Middle Eastern practice and stayed with extended family, which makes perfect sense, given that St. Luke tells us Bethlehem was St. Joseph’s ancestral home. And as if their journey wasn’t hard enough, they couldn’t even have the semi-privacy of the guest room. Perhaps other relatives had gotten there first, or perhaps someone who ranked higher in the social hierarchy took priority, or perhaps rumors about Mary’s pregnancy had diminished the family’s sense of hospitality. Perhaps Ss. Mary and Joseph had been offered the katalumati but graciously gave it up for others, and took the other room, the main room of the house, an all-purpose, no-privacy space.
So if there’s no inn, there’s no stable, because families would bring the livestock in at night, and part of the house would be set up for this. That area might actually have been more pleasant than the main room, which must have been terribly cramped, cluttered, and crowded. If you use a little imagination with your cultural and architectural knowledge, you realize that of course Mary would have laid Jesus on top of the animals’ food — which, incidentally, sat not in a freestanding trough, but in pits dug into the dirt floor. That was probably the only soft space, and indeed the only open space, in the home. You can imagine her wrapping him in whatever cloth was on hand, sighing, remembering that the livestock are all herbivores, setting him down, hoping for the best, and falling asleep exhausted.
So as soon as you explain all this to the person who sold you your crèche set, I’m sure they’ll apologize and give you a full refund. Seriously though, crèches are great and if you want to hold on to yours, I’m perfectly fine with that. But for myself, as much as I love the traditions of the Church, I’m willing to let this one go, because of the symbolism. We need as much to be reminded of who Jesus is not, as of who he is, since our misconceptions about him threaten to weaken our relationship with him and cheat us out of the love and reconciliation he came into the world to give us.
Jesus was not born in a peaceful stable, removed from crowds and chaos and politics and complexity, just as he did not, as an adult, live as a guru in some remote wilderness sanctuary, where a few dedicated students might seek him out. And he was pretty much the opposite of the “Elf on the Shelf.” I didn’t know what that was all about until this year.
This is a successful commercial product, and a theological abomination. Parents of young children buy this little elf doll with a big creepy smile. They tell the kids that the elf is keeping track of whether they’re naughty or nice and reporting back to Santa. So it’s hard to imagine celebrating the elf’s arrival, but some parents try to make it “fun” by moving the elf around the house when the children are asleep and even stage scenes where it looks like the elf has been frozen in the middle of doing something.
A friend of a friend wrote how the elf basically crystallizes all of the world’s worst misconceptions about Jesus, where we tell each other he’s “a personal entity that is always there, watching you, judging you, but with a sort of clownish rictus smile that is supposed to reassure you that this entity is, in fact, somehow your personal friend as well as your moral jailer, entering your venalities into a ledger. He has no soteriological role, just this uneasy friend/jailer dichotomy.”**
Why bother with elf on the shelf when you can welcome God in a bod, or rather, the Word made flesh, and really mean it. We can celebrate that Jesus is truly and fully God with us, for he actively came into the world, and spent his ministry going from place to place in order to reach as many people as he could. We celebrate his birth because that moment is the beginning of our hope that God, in Jesus, is taking action to save us, to reveal the depth of God’s love for us. Jesus also shows us a better way of living, one founded on love, and especially by loving those least able to repay our kindness. From God’s point of view, none of us can repay God for these gifts, but that’s the whole point. Jesus is the savior of a world that needs divine salvation.
So we may take great comfort in knowing that Jesus came into the thick of things, into the world as it is, into a busy, crowded house. The circumstances were not ideal; you could even call them… un-stable. But terrible puns aside, this is a Christmas story we can relate to. In a way, the Holy Family is just like our families, for clearly they were improvising and doing the best they could with what they had. So now I’ve got some good news for you. Jesus and his gifts of love, mercy, grace, and everlasting life are not just for the pious few: he, and they, are God’s gift to all of us, especially those who need them the most. I pray that we may accept these gifts gratefully, and share the Good News of them faithfully, and in do doing, become more like the Giver, full of grace and truth.
**Text from Jesse Tumblin to Shannon Rose McAuliffe, December 19, 2018