Can you imagine Jesus among us?


We are entering the season of Advent. It is a time of waiting and preparing for Christ to come among us. And while we wait we sing hymns that talk about silent nights and babies that don’t cry. Babies that don’t cry means there’s something wrong. A birth in a barn would not be a quiet affair. Not only would there be human noises but the animals would be distressed by the disruptions to their surroundings.

But somehow we want the magic of Christmas. The images that our stories and hymns provide add a layer of magic and mystique to the story itself and to the season but prevent us from really understanding the power and radicalness of this story. If we really stop and think about the story, it should turn our world upside down.

The Christmas Story opens with a young, unwed, pregnant woman and her betrothed setting out on a trip. The fact that Mary is alive at this point is a miracle. It was not uncommon for women pregnant outside of marriage to be stoned or at least turned out their home. The fact that Joseph has remained with her is amazing. Betrothals were contracts between families—not between individuals—and so either Joseph’s family is very understanding (maybe, maybe not) or Joseph has defied his family to stay with and support Mary with her child.

The scripture tells us that Jesus was born in a stable or a manger (depending on translations). Richard Rohrbaugh and Bruce Malina suggest that Mary and Joseph probably arrived in Bethlehem several weeks before the birth and it is likely that Joseph had family in the region and would have been obligated to stay with family. Because of Joseph’s connection to the community someone would have found room for them. What we translate as “inn” might better be translated as a guest room.  In this case the guest room is already occupied by someone of higher social standing and so Mary and Joseph had to stay in the main room with the family of the house and the animals.[1]

Peasant homes would often consist of one room with people living at one end and the animals living at the other. The manger would be in the centre of the room and was the normal location for peasant births. [2]

In this light, the story tells us that Jesus was not important in status nor in the circumstances of his birth. His birth was very ordinary.  The story serves to ground Jesus in the reality of ordinary people and lives. We see it as miraculous and think that because Jesus was born in a manger, God must be there.

And of course it is true that God is present at the birth but so far in the story there’s no reason to believe that this birth is any different from any other peasant birth. But the story only matters to us if it has something to say to us and to our world. The story begins with travellers looking for a place to stay. What would we say if Mary and Joseph came to church on a Sunday morning? The conversation might go something like this…

Greeter:          Good morning.

Joseph:            Good morning. I am Joseph and this is Mary. It’s cold  outside and we are strangers in town. Mary is about to have a baby. Do you think she could have it here?

Greeter:          Here?

Joseph:            Yes here. She could just stretch out on the back pew or…

Greeter:          I’m going to call an ambulance. A baby can’t be born here. It would be disruptive to worship: all the groans of childbirth, the cry of a baby. We can’t worship while a baby is being born and besides it might get blood on the carpet and then we’d have to get it cleaned. No, an ambulance is best.

Joseph:            But isn’t a baby a sign of new life? Isn’t it a sign of God among us? That is what your scriptures say isn’t it? Why wouldn’t you want to experience God among you as a baby?

Greeter:          Well, yes but this is too noisy and messy to be an experience of God. We like our experiences of God to be proper: in our thoughts, in our beautiful music, in our prayers.

Joseph:            But this baby will be born in the midst of all the messiness of life. He will not shy away from God in the midst of illness and death or God in the midst of violence and poverty. You like the story of this baby sanitized as a sentimental story but this baby is as ordinary as any other and yet will change the world forever.

Greeter:          Well, maybe we can find some blankets for Mary and the baby. Our scriptures also teach us to welcome people in need of shelter and that too can be messy. It can also be a bit scary to welcome strangers and to risk turning our comfortable lives upside down.

(Thanks to Hebert Brokering for getting me thinking along these lines. See his book Making Room for Christmas: Preparing a Place for the Christ Child (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2001) for conversations that might occur if Mary and Joseph arrived looking for a room in a variety of places looking for a room.

We talk about Jesus being born among us but if Jesus was actually born right here we might find ourselves more resistant to the story. The birth added people to an already crowded house. More mouths to feed and more people to share the space with and get underfoot. Jesus birth among us should unbalance us, it should make us ask ourselves awkward and difficult questions. It should make us uncomfortable about how we live.

In the scripture, the next characters to enter the story are the shepherds. They are in the fields, protecting the sheep. Sometimes a starlit night can feel safe and comforting and allows us to feel connected to the wider universe. Sometimes night can be a wild and scary place to be. This night may have started as a pleasant night under the stars but it didn’t stay that way for the shepherds. Suddenly, there was a bright light in the sky and a voice says to them: “Do not be afraid.” But wouldn’t you be afraid if in the middle of a calm peaceful night, a bright light appears and then you start hearing voices. Either something very strange is happening around you or something strange is happening in your mind. Neither scenario is very comforting. But that’s what’s happening for the shepherds.

Fear is a normal part of our lives. All of us have particular things or situations that we find frightening. The shepherds could have allowed their fear to paralyze them. They could have just remained on the hillside with the sheep thinking they had imagined the angel. They could have just pretended that nothing happened. But the angels had a message for the shepherds: I am bringing you good news. And that good news is that God is among you. God is among you as a baby, an ordinary baby. God is among you in life.

Sometimes our fear, our comfort and our need for security prevent us from meeting the Christ child. We want the Christ child to be among us is ways that are non-disruptive and that maintain our comfort. Examining this story too closely can upset the Christmas season. We might be forced to acknowledge that Christ is born in poverty. If God is born as an ordinary baby in poverty 2000 years ago, God is still born as an ordinary baby in poverty today. The Christmas story didn’t magically change the world.

The shepherds faced their fear and headed off to find the baby. And when they had an experience of God in their midst they told everyone. The started out the night being afraid but in their fear they could recognize God was among them. And when they recognized God’s presence they wanted to share the good news.

That is also a challenge for us. We think we want God among us but God among us can scare us and stretch our comfort zones. God among us isn’t always easy to spot because sometimes God is very ordinary. Sometimes so ordinary that we want to look down our noses or turn our backs. The Christmas story challenges us to seek the Christ child in our own lives and in own world even in the midst messy life challenges and in unexpected places. The Christmas story invites us to overcome our fear and share our experiences of the Christ child in our midst.

[1]. Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), kindle e-book, screen 4965.

[2]. Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), kindle e-book, screen 4941.


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