Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Making Mary and Joseph Comfortable: Looking at the Christmas Story from an 'Eastern' Perspective

I’m writing this on Christmas Eve. Advent is nearing its end and I’m looking forward to the feast of Christmas. Tonight I’m off to midnight Mass, where all of the readings and reflections will now focus on Bethlehem, the holy family, and the birth of our Lord. 

The story is so ingrained in our lives we can recite it from memory. The angel’s announcement, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, the manger, the shepherd’s, the wise men…

However, I think we need to revisit the story a bit- not the biblical text itself, but how we read it, and critically reflect. What are we reading? How are we reading it? Are we leaving anything out? Are we needlessly adding elements that weren’t there? 

Much of my understanding of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus come from two personal experiences: first, I had the immense privilege to attend lectures by Dr. Kenneth Bailey, formerly Theologian in Residence in the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East (Cyprus) and Research Professor of Middle Eastern NT Studies (Jerusalem). Bailey’s extensive experience of Middle Eastern life and tradition directly informs his exposition of the biblical text, revealing elements that a Western reading of the texts can misunderstand or overlook. 

Secondly, I have been to the Middle East myself, have visited Bethlehem, and heard firsthand how the ancient Christian community there, drawing on long tradition and oral history, understands the accounts. 

From both these experiences, I’m convinced that our reading of the birth of Christ is so overlaid with our own dysfunctional culture’s prejudices as to be almost completely erroneous. 

Think of your immediate mental images of the birth of Christ as it is trotted out in every nativity play in every church or community centre you’ve been in: There’s Mary, nine months pregnant, loaded awkwardly and painfully on a donkey, being dragged door to door by Joseph, only to have every door slammed in their faces and eventually huddled in a dark and smelly barn, alone and abandoned. 

I'm not going to even ask about the snowmen...

This vision of the story is so familiar, we no longer even question any of the assumptions it makes. But most Abrahamic cultures in the Middle East- Jewish, Christian, and Muslim- would view it as absurd, even insulting. 

So, let’s look at the Christmas story again, this time through an ‘Eastern’ lens: 

There are two vital elements to that lens: family and hospitality. Almost all of Abrahamic culture revolves around those two elements, and they are much more broadly understood in those cultures than in our own. 

When westerners think of family, we tend to focus on ‘immediate’ family, the ‘nuclear’ family- husband, wife, and children. Abrahamic cultures in the Middle East focus on the ‘extended’ family- aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, third cousins, all of whom are often considered as close as brother and sister. The conceptions of family and community were- and are- much wider and encompassing in the East than in the West. 

Thus, when the emperor Augustus decreed his empire-wide tax, we can reasonably assume that Joseph was not the only man in Nazareth heading out to his home town. We can also reasonably assume that a good portion of Mary’s family traveled with them as well. Sisters, brothers, cousins, parents, friends… Westerners travel with their immediate family; Eastern families travel with the ‘extendeds’. 

We can also assume that Mary didn’t start out on this trip nine months pregnant; people of her culture didn’t go places for the weekend. Joseph and Mary would have gone for an extended period, probably several months. 

Why? Again, we need to remember that Joseph was from Bethlehem; not only that, he was from the house and lineage of King David- a very prominent family pedigree! It is completely reasonable to assume that Joseph and Mary stayed with family- Joseph’s family. Even if Joseph had no living relatives in Bethlehem (which would be nearly impossible in a culture where the concept of ‘extended family’ is so strong), he’d simply have had to say who his family was and ‘Eastern’ hospitality would have opened any door in Bethlehem to him and his family. 

Because of the tax, Bethlehem would indeed have been crowded, and it is quite likely that there was no room in the house- or, more likely ‘houses’- for Joseph, Mary, and the whole Nazareth clan. This would not have been a problem, though; Joseph and Mary stayed in one of the caves. 

Yes, a cave. If you travel to Bethlehem today, you will see the extensive use of caves for family dwelling. These are not dark, wet, cramped caves; they are roomy and comfortable, warm in the winters and cool in the summers- all the comforts of home… because they are home. 

A Bethlehem cave. Not 'too' shabby...

When it came time for Mary to give birth, one person would not have been present: Joseph. Men in that culture didn’t ‘do’ births then, and they don’t ‘do’ them now. No matter though; Mary would have been surrounded by women- lots of women; her mother, sisters, Joseph’s female relations- all of these would have been considered Mary’s relatives. It was noisy, feminine, caring. 

When the birth of Jesus is viewed though this ‘Eastern’ cultural lens, it looks completely different- warm, caring, close, and familial. Many Christians in the West would probably be amazed at it, maybe even uncomfortable. 

If that is the case, we need to ask, why? 

I think there are two reasons. First, Western Christianity is almost thoroughly alienated from its Eastern cultural roots, and because we are almost entirely divorced from Eastern culture, values, and understandings, our reading and understanding of the biblical text is impoverished. 

Worse, it has left Western Christians alienated from actual Middle Eastern people, particularly their Christian brothers and sisters. The near-complete abandonment by Western Christians of the Palestinian Christian community- the community who actually live in Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank and Gaza- is the most shameful result of that alienation. 

Secondly, Progressive/left Christians in the West invest heavily in the traditional, erroneous images of the birth story, using them as the basis for a theological reflection on the need to care for the homeless and the stranger. 

Admirable as that is, it actually says more about the theological context of the West than it does about the cultural context of the Middle East. 

We need to find ourselves in the biblical text and the experiences its people, but we should be careful not to project our own culture's sins and selfishness backwards on to them. 

It is our culture that turns its back on the stranger, not theirs.

We are inconvenienced by those in need; they aren't. 

We live atomized lives focused on our own individual needs; they don't.

We have extremely limited ideas of family and community; they don't. 

But worse, our traditional reading of the birth of Christ often projects culturally thoughtless and racist images onto the events- rude, inhospitable, ‘innkeepers’, ‘dirty’, ‘stinking’ living conditions, and ‘smelly’ shepherds. 

That is not what people in the Middle East were like then, nor are they like that now. 

So, how do I think we should read the accounts of the birth of Christ? How should we then live? 

We can emulate their lives. We can allow the Abrahamic cultures of the Middle East to nourish our own religious and cultural lives. We can emulate their hospitality, their strong emphasis on the family, their attention to tradition and inherited values. 

We can rejoice that Mary and Joseph were not alone and abandoned but were treated with warmth and care. 

And we can dedicate ourselves to treating others- strangers, our families- with the same warmth and care that they received. 

A peaceful, hospitable, and comfortable Christmas to you all.

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