After spending the last three hours untangling Christmas lights and hunting for that one miniature bulb preventing a hundred others from offering their peaceful glow, I happened upon an interesting question.
What do I do with the nativity set for Christmas 2020?
Per our family tradition, each year I try to make the nativity set as biblically accurate as possible. I have already removed the Magi because they won’t show up for a couple of years. I left the donkey in storage because we have no record of Mary actually riding on a donkey. We had a set of angels looking peacefully upon the scene. But they had to go as well. According to Luke’s account of the Christmas story, they were not hovering over the manger. They appeared to shepherds in the field who then shared the story with Mary and Joseph. This leaves our family nativity set a little bare. We are left with a wooden shelter, Mary, Joseph, their newborn baby in a manger, a couple random shepherds, and some animals who are wondering where they will be eating breakfast.
It was a silent night,
….because no one seemed to care.
But now, in 2020, do I need to remove the manger and rickety shelter too? Two thousand years ago, in order to ensure that Rome was collecting every required denarius during tax season, Caesar commanded everyone return to their hometown to be counted in a great census of the Roman Empire. That meant Mary and Joseph were required to travel 90 miles on foot over rugged terrain from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. But, this is 2020. Does that mean Caesar would be telling them to stay in Nazareth and mail in their census forms?
Then again, when I read the story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem while Mary was very pregnant, I wonder if they would have preferred to stay in Nazareth. They are not traveling to Bethlehem to visit family. They are only traveling from their home in Nazareth, because the government wanted an accurate head count for tax purposes. When we set aside the Christmas carols, traditional imagery, and TV specials, the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke is fairly bleak.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Look again at the very small crowd gathered at the manger. Who else is missing? Who is not there to welcome this little bundle of joy? Remember, Caesar’s taxation edict sent Joseph to his family home of Bethlehem. So, where is Joseph's family? Where are the flowers, balloons and home cooked meals? Is there no one on Joseph’s side of the family who had room for them?
Then, when you think the night cannot get any darker for Mary and Joseph, take a look at how Luke describes the birth of Jesus.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
(Luke, 2:6-7, NRSV)
Traditionally, we are told that there was “no room” for them in the inn. But, the Greek text says that there was no "place" for them. How would you like hearing that there is no place for you? Honestly, "no room" sounds better. “No room” says, "I am sorry, but there is nothing I can do. I want to help, but my hands are tied.”
No “place” seems to cut deeper. No “place” says, "There is nothing I want to do to help you. There is no place for you in my life. You are too poor, too unimportant, or too much work.”
Let’s skip ahead forty days to Jesus’ dedication in Jerusalem (Luke 2:22-38). The family arrives in the Temple bringing two turtledoves as an offering for their new child. Since the Magi and their valuable gifts are still months away, Joseph and Mary can only afford the biblical minimum of turtledoves. As they enter the Temple precincts, they meet a man named Simeon, who tells them that this child, the child that no one else seems to notice, is the hope for all nations. In their hands, they hold the power of salvation, the hope for true freedom, and the fulfillment of God’s promises to humanity.
Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph are amazed by what Simeon told them. And, who could blame them? Joseph is listening to Simeon’s history changing proclamation while holding a pair of turtledoves.
We see in Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and the entire silent night, that our “place” is not found on these dusty roads. But, we do have a “place.” And, to make sure that we know where that place can be found, the One who was offered no place with us, arrived in Bethlehem to lead us to a place, built in eternity, that is not complete without us.