As you gaze on this image of the nativity, where do your eyes linger? What do you notice? Can you place yourself there … perhaps in the window enjoying a warm beverage, or fetching water with the midwife? How is it both different from and similar to other nativities you have seen? Have you ever wondered who might have helped Mary deliver her child? What if the birth of Jesus didn't happen in a secluded stable, but in a home overflowing with guests?
Tradition and legend tell us Jesus was born in a stable. We see image after image that portrays the living God taking his first breath in a barn in the middle of nowhere alone with his mother, foster father and a handful of farm animals. After all, there was no room for them in the inn, and the manger bed was the best that could be managed. And yet, what if it wasn't that way? What if it isn't the dramatic story of a frantic young father and his actively laboring wife seeking shelter in a motel at the last moment but something different altogether?
The Greek word translated as "inn" in scripture doesn't technically refer as much to a hotel or a paid room, but rather, to a private family "guest space." Not only this, a close reading of scripture suggests that Joseph and Mary had likely been in Bethlehem for a few days before delivery. So, if not a hurried rush ending in an isolated barn, what was the Creator of the Universe's first night on earth like?
Archaeology shows us that houses in the first century included a built-in space for animals in either the front or back of the structure. Sometimes it was even a cave. This setup kept the animals close at night for two reasons. First, livestock are valuable and keeping them close is a security measure. Second, though, the nights were cold and close proximity capitalized on their heat. Families lived and slept in a raised room close to or even opening into the stable. A guest space (what scripture translates as an "inn") would have been adjacent, upstairs on a second floor or even on the roof. Given all the activity and mess that surround birth, the smaller guest space may not have been sufficient and so, we find them in the larger space where the animals lie.
Continue to imagine ... because they were going to be counted for the census in Bethlehem, where Joseph was from, he likely still had family there. In some ways, Joseph and Mary make the same trek you might make this holiday season to visit extended family out of town, and they likely weren't the only ones coming in for the census. Hospitality remains an integral part of Middle Eastern culture, and the Holy Family very likely would have been welcomed warmly and cared for well by their extended family. The birth of their first child would have been cause for celebration, and they might have received many offerings of support from the local women.
Perhaps this bit of translation and archeology seems insignificant, but it changes the game. Did Mary pace the courtyard to ease her labor pains with companions to support her on either side? Were there others who climbed up and down the stairs for linens, water and food? The everlasting Son might've been rocked by his aunt or peeked at coyly, cautiously, by his second cousins.
The living God chooses to be born amid the chaos and noise of a family gathering. God becomes human on the ground level — our level.
Certainly, and perhaps more than we typically take the time to focus on, it was like every other human birth, but were there also clues to the eternal significance of the moment? Did the woman running for water notice the quiet calm and attentiveness of the animals? Did children playing gaze up at a star that shone with the light of a full moon? Did the midwife, coaching Mary, hear a dove roosted above the rafters, cooing a lullaby? When the infant finally emerged, was there a rush of the spirit — like freedom and grace, forgiveness and love? With the voice that would eventually command the sea and seasons, what was the sound of his first cry? How did the community that surrounded them make meaning of these tiny miracles they noticed?
In Catholic health care we take note of the sacred experiences and sacramental moments of every day — the times when grace flings the doors open and floods the world. It may be the first clean scan after a cancer battle. It may be a moment of forgiveness between family members. It may be a community benefit program that saves lives. It may be a shared embrace.
Just as happened that night in Bethlehem so long ago, God shows up in the noise and the mess and the chaos of our daily lives. God makes them holy. The season of Christmas preparation is one of joyful noise, but that noise can also be a distraction to the spiritual themes of the season. Too easily, Christmas overruns Advent such that by Dec. 26, trees and nativities are packaged up before the leftovers are even gone. Yet, the Christmas season continues for many weeks beyond. The promise of Christmas and of Advent is the promise that we are not alone, we are held, loved and witnessed to in the twists and turns, the rush and the rumors. God will always call out to us, meet us where we are. We need only to respond. How are you called to continue to lean into both the silence and the noise beyond the Christmas season? How can you continue to encounter the divine in the sacred, sacramental moments of your everyday relationships?