Monday, December 24, 2012

The night before Christmas

It was the night before Christmas and all through the world
Everything looked like business as usual
Shepherds sat on a hillside looking up at the stars
While the world fell asleep unaware just how deep
Was the darkness the night before Christmas

And the night before Christmas it seemed to be just a night
But the wind blew like something was coming
And like children with secrets that they're bursting to tell
The cedars danced in the breeze while all of nature it seemed
Held its breath on the night before Christmas

And hope, hope long awaited
The hope of the ages
Would break with the dawn
And the song that all of creation was anticipating
Would start with a baby's first cry

And on the night before Christmas Mary laid down to rest
While Joseph, he paced the floor praying
And in an everyday stable, in an everyday town
In the hours to come God would wrap Himself up
And come down from heaven and the world would forever be changed
After the night before Christmas

-"The Night Before Christmas" by Steven Curtis Chapman

As a child, the story of Christmas was one of my favorites. I deeply admired Mary, young as she was, to accept God's blessing of a child, and to carry it and nurture it for nine months, and then continue to nurture God even more. My grandparents took me to see The Nativity Story when it came out in the theatre, but even before then, the picture painted of the story was this:

Mary and Joseph were traveling to Bethlehem. It took a very long time, so that by the time they arrived, it was time for little baby Jesus to be born. So they ran around (or rather, Joseph ran around) Bethlehem, looking for a place for the baby to be born, but there wasn't any place for them to stay. No one would give them room. But one person would offer an outside shed that smelt strongly of the animals, where Mary would collapse and give birth to the baby with only Joseph to catch the child. The shepherds would be out in the fields, freezing because it was winter, but watching the flocks nevertheless, and then the angels would appear to them, singing, and they would go back to Bethlehem to see the newborn baby.

However, when I went to Israel, I was offered a very different understanding. And let me say this up front: This does NOT change what Christmas is at all. Christmas, whether the Messiah was born in December or in September or in June, still is a time to remember that a Messiah was born, and that he was fully God, and fully man. It is a time to remember it with family, and to come together in one body. Now, on to a new thought of the story of Jesus' birth.

Miriam and Yosef (remember, we're speaking Hebrew ;) ) made the long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And yes, it is a ways away. It's a couple hours by car (or bus), and there are a few interesting geological formations that would make travel difficult. So you can imagine Mary and Joseph taking their time to travel several days, especially with Mary being pregnant. Bethlehem is right outside of Jerusalem, about an hour or two walking. They would get to Bethlehem, Joseph's hometown, where his family would take them into their house.

People in the public area, with one girl climbing up the ladder
to the sleeping private area
This is a Middle East hospitality thing. People never turn down guests. Almost ever. You don't just leave a man and his wife (especially his pregnant wife) outside.  However, there would be so many people, that the "guest area" - that is, the main public room - would be crowded, so Joseph and Mary would be placed in the storage room to sleep. This is the room where animals would be put during the wintertime, when it is cold (and believe me, Jerusalem gets cold in the winter).
Most of this is the storage area, with people standing beyond
in the public area. It is a bit more private, no?
This is where the common understanding of the couple being placed in a cattle stall. And this would be where Mary would give birth. She wouldn't be alone. Joseph would probably be kicked out, along with the other men around, and Mary would be surrounded by the women in the storage room in order to give birth. This would probably the best place to have a child anyway, because you wouldn't want to do it in the public area, and the private home sleeping area is usually on an upper level - wouldn't want to be climbing up that ladder in labor.

So the baby is born, and Joseph comes in to see the baby like a proud papa, and everyone's happy. The shepherds are outside still - it is not winter, because winters are cold, remember? - with the sheep (I have my own bone to pick about sheep now that I've seen them in Israel, and I'll talk about that some other blog post), and the story goes on.

I kinda like this understanding better, because people generally don't "get" the Middle East until they've lived there, at least visited for a bit. Family is huge. Guests are treated well. You treat extended family and friends with the utmost respect. I like that.

Those are my thoughts this Christmas Eve, now that Christmas Eve is nearly over. So everyone, enjoy your family and friends. Love on your guests. Offer them tea and cookies as soon as they walk in the door (props if you offer Bedouin, chai, jasmine, or some other Middle Eastern-y tea). And remember our wonderful Savior.

Merry Christmas, friends.

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