Sometimes as I'm preparing for Christmas, I begin to wonder whether I've already said this. Didn't I take this angle last year, I ask myself; haven't I adopted this approach before? Sometimes it's hard to see anything new in the Christmas story and what should be the most exciting of stories becomes stale and samey.
Well, I've had one of those days - and then suddenly, an epiphany (which is appropriate given the season!)
I'm writing my script which retells the Christmas story as it actually happened (according to Matthew and Luke) in the order it happened taking due note of the passing of time and it hits me.
I ought to fill in the context, I guess. Following on from Kenneth Bailey - that great New Testament scholar who's lived most of his life in the Middle east - I believe that when Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem they would have stayed with a cousin of Joseph. He would have had relatives there as it's his ancestral home and it would have been unthinkable that one of those relatives would not have made room for Joseph and his wife-to-be
(on a technical note: there probably would not have been a commercial inn in Bethlehem. They tended to be at the mid-way points on roads between trading centres. And the word translated 'inn' in Luke 2:7 means guest room - it's the word used in Luke 22:11 for the 'upper room' where he celebrated his last supper with his friends. Where Luke speaks of a commercial inn - as he does in the parable of the good Samaritan - he uses a different word altogether.)
When Mary went into labour - some time after arriving in Bethlehem - the guest room was full of people. There was no privacy for her to deliver her baby. So she went into the section of the house downstairs where the owners would keep their animals at night. It was warm, dry and there was an ideal cot for the baby! There she could go with the women who'd be on hand to assist and deliver her baby in relative privacy - at least away from the prying eyes of men!
The shepherds are summoned to the house that Jesus was born in by angels. They come. They see. They worship. They start telling people in the house what the angel told them. And suddenly I'm thinking this is probably the first time that half Joseph's family will have heard this. I wonder what they make of it? I wonder how long it is before the whole street knows?
Something as ordinary and everyday as the birth of a baby is suddenly an extraordinary, once-in-history event: God's anointed saviour is arriving in the world. The one who will reverse the effects of the Fall, defeat death, satan and all forces of darkness and evil has been born in the Bethlehem equivalent of a suburban semi.
God comes right under the noses of people - and they don't think anything of it until shepherds who'd been sent by angels - angels who didn't appear to anyone in the house or street where Jesus was born - turn up and spill the beans. It's amazing.
I love Christmas. I never fail to see something new in the story. This is the lynch-pin of history, the night when God came to set things right. And no matter how often I read it, it still blows me away.