Nativity scenes crack me up. No, there’s nothing inherently funny about them, and I recognize and honor the symbolic appeal and power they have, but having visited farm and village sites in Israel that are still essentially pre-modern, and knowing what stables look, feel, and smell like in general, I just love how pristine, clean, and tidy we make our Nativity scenes. I visited a “travelers way” in Tzfat (Safed) — a place where travelers stop and sleep or eat, similar to a modern inn, but very much like the place where Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem. There are three rooms — a central room with tables and benches, and a room to either side with wide benches along each wall where people can unroll a blanket and lie down. One room for men, one room for women and small children. No bathrooms, no running water. Bread, stew, root vegetables, and wine available to eat. Attached is a place for animals, but a stable it is not. It is a sunken dirt-floor room with a water trough, some very well-used hay, and some salt-lick blocks. These are raised from the floor in a wooden box on cross pieces — what might once have been called a manger. These are also used as feeding troughs. Animals are not picky — they chomp the box along with the contents, and the boxes are pretty shabby and splintered. There are no lights in the space, and while they are mucked out daily, they are not cared for as if the animals belonged to the landlord. The reality is that this is a holding cell and nothing more; a pen to make sure animals do not wander off. No human being would want to spend any time there. It is gut-wrenchingly smelly, dark, hot, loud, and at times, impossible to avoid being stepped on, nipped, and butted profusely. An adult would not want to sleep there; no one would have a baby there, unless there simply was no other choice.
I remember a Rabbi friend from New Jersey who studied the New Testament in Greek to be able to teach why Jews didn’t believe in it. In our many conversations he pointed out things to me about Hebrew tradition and practice that most Christians miss in the New Testament. He pointed out to me that in Jewish culture, “no room” more often means “not welcome” instead of “full up.” He also pointed out that “no place” is a better translation than “no room.” He told me his mother used to offer rooms to people in need, but she was very picky about who she would allow. She would tell him, “we have no room for that kind,” meaning rowdy men and loose women. He pointed out to me that Joseph had not married Mary by the time she had her baby (Luke 2:5), and she would have been shunned in almost every decent Jewish household and establishment. He conjectured that the reason they ended up with the animals was because of the shame and dishonor of being an unwed mother. Matthew tries to cover it by going ahead and calling Joseph “her husband,” but that wouldn’t work any better today than it did then. He said that no self-respecting Jew would turn away a young married woman about to have a baby. It simply would not happen, especially in the days when welcoming the stranger was an essential part of the Jewish identity. There is great significance in the fact that the baby Jesus was born in squalor, filth, clamor, and noxious stink. Poor Mary.
Weird shift. Christmas Eve 1978, High Street UMC, Muncie, Indiana. On January 27 of that year, a gas main underneath the sub basement of the High Street UMC blew up during the third day of blizzard conditions. Roads were closed, many impassable, and emergency workers had a terrible time getting to the church. The massive five-story structure saw the doors and windows blown out, and the explosion gutted the building from basement to roof. Pieces of stained glass were discovered as far as two miles from the church. This was a Saturday morning. Had it been on a Sunday, many lives could have been lost. Due to the storm, no one — including the live in college caretakers — was in the building. Working to retrieve as much as possible from the building, it looked sugar-glazed by the water from fire hoses frozen over every surface. The church was devastated, but not demolished. Reconstruction began during the summer, and by Christmas Eve, floors and walls had been restored. With no electricity, no lights, no heat, no furnishings or vestments, it stood as a stark hulk, the sanctuary filled with cinderblocks, wiring, pipes, drywall panels, and paint cans. So, of course, a handful of us decided to hold Christmas Eve services there anyway.
We stood bundled in coats, hats, gloves, mufflers, scarves, holding flashlights and battery-powered candles. Our pastors read the Christmas story, alternating passages from Matthew and Luke. We sang carols as far as we could remember the words, and we prayed, watching the steam of our breath carry them skyward to God. A wonderful God-thing happened that night that gave us chills from a source other than the cold. As we concluded the service, a lone recorder, somewhere off in the distance, began to softly play Silent Night. The notes drifted to us, echoing in the large empty chamber. No one knew who was playing, where it was coming from, how they had known to play when they did — and I still don’t know to this day (so don’t spoil it for me).
The memory I carried from this place and time was the thought: this is still so much better than what Mary and Joseph had at the first Christmas. Stark, cold, dirty, uncomfortable — the sanctuary offered none of the comforts and delights so many of us associate with Christmas Eve at church. The lights, the warmth, the decorations, the candles, the singing, the magic — many people only attend church on Christmas Eve. And we make it as charming and inviting and gentle and sweet as possible. We tell the story as a fairy tale, highlighting the magic. We think of clean, neat, intelligent, civilized shepherds. We jump the gun to envision Wise Men dressed in fine robes, bobbing along comfortably on their camels. We see angels, dressed appropriately in robes with sashes and impeccably groomed feathered wings and shiny halos. And everyone arrives at a basically hygienic barn with an open front, animals all nicely lined up, mother and father looking quite kempt and clean, gazing at the spic-and-span Messiah, wrapped in clean cloths, lying in a well-kept, slightly used manger. I wonder how many of us would willingly gather on Christmas Eve in an overcrowded animal pen, stinking to high heaven (the pen, not us…), with a cacophony of bleats and grunts causing us to yell to be heard, and with no place to sit (or even stand comfortably and cleanly)? I wonder how many of us would be moved to give comfort and aid to a strange, dirty, uneducated, unwed mother who ended up in the equivalent of a dead-end dive? I wonder how many of us would really want to enter into the story the way it actually happened? That weird little impromptu service at High Street UMC in 1978 maybe got me closer to Christmas Eve than I had ever been before… or since.