READING: MARK 2: 1-7 In those days a decree was issued by the emperor Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Roman world. This was the first registration of its kind; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone made his way to his own town to be registered. Joseph went up to Judaea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descendent; and with him went Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting her child. While they were there the time came for her to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.
I read the above scripture and think about how very simplistic this passage is. Joseph goes to resister in the town he’s from with his betrothed. They travel a distance and Mary’s pregnant. She gives birth in a manger because there’s no room in the inn. It’s her first born, a son.
That’s it. Most everyone knows the story. They’ve heard it. Many, many interpretations of it.
I was on the internet the other day and was sent a link to a children’s telling of this story. The children were telling the story and the adults acted it out. Each child had their own interpretation and bit of poetic license when they weren’t sure about it. They weren’t sure whether Mary rode a donkey…or a camel…but it was “fast”. Mary was hanging laundry when the angel appeared to her and Gabriel had a habit of giggling. When the shepherds were told the news by the angel they looked at each other and the first one said: “I think we should go there and meet him.” The second said: “Yeah, I agree with you” and the third said (after a pause): “Yeah, me too.” The wise men looked up and said: “I think we should probably follow that star.” When they arrived, they offered Gold, Frankenstein, and Myrrh. The kids suggested really useful gifts, such as a purple hippo stuffed animal and diapers and wipes. Which I thought was pretty functional advice.
I thought that our oral traditions are alive and well.
I don’t tell this to make fun of the kids, but to remind us of how much our tradition still is oral and interpretive. We read this little piece of scripture and each of us takes different things from it. We each look at different parts as important. We have whole books and movies and songs and artwork about this one small piece of scripture.
Original readers of the Bible would have known what it was like to travel those distances. That’s why it was just a simple, “this is this, that is that” passage. The original readers didn’t need the details. They would have known.
For us, we get to imagine the travel. There are so many beautiful interpretations of this moment.
So, as I tease the kids, I think that we are kind of doing the same thing. We don’t really understand from reading just the scripture what was really happening. These are the bare bones and we add layers of meaning that serve us in this time and this place.
We can read this scripture and take it as it is and think about a baby being born in a manger who will offer hope into the world. I think of the journey of Joseph and Mary.
In those days a decree was issued by the emperor Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Roman world.
My first thought is what political thing is going on here that one had to go right now to register regardless of circumstances: ill, pregnant, or whatever. I’m not going to dive into that today.
Everyone made his way to his own town to be registered. Joseph went up to Judaea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to register in the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descendent;
I had to look it up. That’s a 90 mile trip. The Appalachian Trail in MA is 90 miles, from the border of Connecticut to the border of Vermont. That’s a long way on foot. Carrying all your stuff on your back or on a donkey (or a camel).
Joseph and Mary would have had to travel this distance on foot. Normally they would have been able to travel around twenty miles a day. In Mary’s condition, that mileage would have been closer to ten. Through wild animal infested woods, wild boars were particularly troublesome. It would have been rainy and cold. There would have been bandits. It would have been a miserable trip, up and down the terrain and carrying their own food and water. To top it all off, Mary is pregnant.
I could keep comparing it to hiking the AT, but I think, for me, this is better:
Let’s pretend we’re living in Florida and for some reason we have to register in our place of birth, Massachusetts. If we’re lucky, we could grab a flight, book a hotel, and register in a day or so and be back home. What if you couldn’t afford a plane ticket or were ill, or pregnant? What if the planes were full because everyone is traveling? What if you couldn’t afford to fly and had to drive. What if you drove an old beater? What if you didn’t have time to take off work or the money for a hotel? And what if all the hotels are booked? Then what do you do? Stay in your car? A tent? A barn? What if you didn’t have a car? What if you had to take a bus? Or a bike? Or walk? Oh, and let’s make sure we have to do this in the winter, just to really understand what it might have been like….
I’m as bad as the kids in the video I saw, but it brings some relevance to think about. What would it have been like to walk in those footsteps. We are so far removed from nature that it’s hard for us to even imagine.
with him went Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting her child.
While they were there the time came for her to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.
Everyone is going home to register and once they get to their destination, there’s no place to stay. You couldn’t pull out your App and book a room on the way, so as in the kids version I mentioned: “Literally no rooms”. Mary’s about to have her first child. That in itself would have been terrifying. She would have had no family but Joseph and no shelter. It would have been crowded in the stables, with people and the donkeys belonging to other travelers. Historically, they wouldn’t have been the only ones seeking shelter in a stable that night. She had to be terribly frightened.
What do we have to learn from this? How do we take the story and make them relevant and useful to us today?
We have our own interpretations. And is that bad?
I’ve had several people ask me about our church and often the first words out of their mouths is: “I haven’t read the Bible”. It’s like a confession, followed by guilt and shame and waiting for me to judge them. They are asking: do I belong? Am I going to be welcome? Do I have to read the Bible? Do I have to follow in the “right” way?
People are seeking places to be welcome, accepting, and able to share their struggles, their joys and sorrows and concerns, without being judged or told they aren’t good enough. People want to dip their toes (and then leap) into something meaningful, but aren’t sure how to do it.
I thought, does it matter who has, and hasn’t, read the Bible? Does it matter if someone has never heard this story before or has heard this story a hundred different times in a hundred different ways? Does it matter if I take this from it and you take that from it?
How can we learn from one another if we’re all trying to get to the same answer when there isn’t a same answer. We’ve all had different experiences that allow us to bring our own meaning to these stories. Perhaps that’s why it’s a book of stories (and parables). We’re meant to chew it at our own level from the place we’re at now.
I come from a recent background of yogic philosophy. There’s an interesting relationship to time in yogic philosophy wherein, time doesn’t really matter. Often it’s a ridiculously long long time ago in the stories, such as, “two million years ago this happened” or “in the last age this happened”. It’s like “once upon a time” where time doesn’t matter. It’s meant to say: that what matters is Now. What do you do with this now? How is this relevant to now, to you?
We’re all going to have our different answers. And different answers for ourselves in different stages of our lives. I know this story has grown over time for me. As a child it was simply about a child of hope being born in a manger. It was simple and sweet. Now, it’s deeper and it will probably continue to grow as I grow and change. I think about it as a lesson in the most beautiful things come out of the dark times. The most wonderful things in our lives come out of the struggles and the hard times. We don’t gain the most wisdom, the most hope, the most faith during the easy times. We gain these things in the long journey where we’re not sure what might happen around the corner…
What is our child of hope in the manger? What is our light? What is the light that lights up our own world and what lights up our whole world? This child of hope who comes to embody the divine and show us the way to be the light in the world. To be the good in the world. To be a beacon of hope. And peace. Today, we light the candle of peace.
This week is a birth of hope and love and joy and peace. Merry, merry Christmas. Bask in your own favorite stories of the season. Spread Joy.