I have a son was born on the 5th December. He was not my firstborn son. He was child number 3 – but it was close enough to the Christmas story for his big sister Miriam, aged 5 at the time, to draw all her Christmas cards with a baby Zach lying in the manger.
This boy, adored by sisters and indeterminate stable beasts, has just turned fourteen, and his sisters may be revising their opinions, but it has given me another opportunity to tell him the story of his birth. How I’d planned the perfect natural birth, but he was overdue, and the midwives had a conference, so they induced me. What an unnatural process that is – having breakfast one moment and being in hard labour the next. And how when he was born – his father who’d claimed he’d be delighted with a third daughter – was (not at all subtly) over the moon to have a son! And how I called a very good friend to tell her and we cried – so happy he was here safely, but so sad for her son, born the year before, who’d only lived a few hours. So I tell him that life can be hard. That things do not always go to plan. And how his sisters came to see him – how we told them they could choose if he was Zachary or Zachariah – and they chose Zachariah – so we called him Zachary anyway.
In our reading this morning, the writer of Luke is also telling a birth story. But when you strip back the centuries of carols and religious art and pageants, and decades of television, it is a slightly different birth story to the one we have imagined.
For instance, when it says in verse three; “all went to their own towns to be registered” we should understand this was not an ancestral census, but an economic one. Its purpose was taxation. You registered in the place where your family owned land. Joseph, therefore, returns from Nazareth, most likely, to his family home. And while they were there – the implication being that some time has passed – it is not the night they arrive – Mary gives birth.
Now, I don’t want to say anything else too scandalous this evening. But the text does not actually mention inns or innkeepers or lowly (or lonely) stables. There is no need, as one commentator says, to have the young couple gallivanting all over Bethlehem counting no-vacancy signs on non-existent hotels! ‘Inn’ simply means place to stay. In the place where they were staying, there wasn’t space to give birth, so Mary gives birth in another space, where there is a manger. The homes of Palestinian peasants, even in modern times, consisted of one room with a raised terrace where the family ate and slept and the floor where the animals were brought in for shelter and warmth at night. According to Middle Eastern scholar Kenneth Bailey, Jesus was born “in the natural setting of the birth of any village boy, [the men sitting apart with the neighbours, the women assisting the midwife] surrounded by helping hands and encouraging women’s voices”. Jesus was born in such a peasant home. Born into a family.
Why do we tell birth stories? Why do I tell Zach the story of his birth?
In an article I read, it said birth stories are told to convey the courage and power of women as birth givers, the integrity, the cost, of the birth process and the importance – the article referred to the sanctity – of family connections.
I tell Zach about his birth because I want him to know that there is an incredibly strong connection between him and us – that he is part of our story – that we are part of his – that we belong to each other. And I tell him the part about our friend’s baby because he is also a part of our story and I want Zach to understand that life, that giving birth to life, is also painful, but that we cannot run from this pain or reject it, but that love – love of family, love of friends, communities that help and encourage courage – are what foster life.
I tell him the story of his birth to connect us and to empower him to connect with others. This is the significance of family, the sanctity or sacred task of family, for me. And this is why, I believe, the writer of Luke also tells us this birth story.
Jesus is born – not in a lonely stable – but surrounded by women and men and children and animals. He is one of us. He is born into the joy, and the pain, of human relationships. He is born into the reality of hunger, cold, and the need for love. ‘Little Lord Jesus some crying will make’ for he shares our life. He shares our story.
And the story of Jesus’ birth is one that does not shut out suffering. The first to hear of his birth are not kings or priests, but “shepherds living in the fields [sleeping rough] keeping watch over their flock by night.” People in a profession considered unclean by the rabbis. And what are they told? “This will be a sign for you; you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”. In other words, this child is in a peasant home and therefore smelly shepherds will be welcome. For this child has been born “to you” – not just to Mary or Joseph or to Joseph ben Jacob of the family of David, but “to you” They are included in the news of the birth. They are included in this story. They are part of this family.
This story makes an incredibly strong connection between Jesus and us, and it demonstrates that through Jesus, God is reaching out in love to our world. It tells us that the sacred task of God’s family is to share this love. For this story is not only about the birth of Jesus, but the birth of the kingdom of God.
The theologian Karl Barth, towards the end of his life, was asked if, during his life, he had changed his mind on any significant theological issues and he said, yes, that once he had believed that Jesus came to preach the Kingdom of God, but now he believed that Jesus was the kingdom. That in his person Jesus was the reign of God in the world: God being gracious, God coming with healing and forgiveness, God reaching into the broken human family to make it whole.
The writer of Luke tells us the birth story of the Kingdom of God. A kingdom that embraces as family the poor, those in pain, those we push to the edge of our human family. This is the birth story of all birth stories. A story that invites us to share it. To tell it as our own birth story. And to share its life-giving love with others.
Let us join with the angels in announcing the joy of this birth. A child has been born for us!