Of all those, one that brings me great pleasure is from Haiti. It is clay, hand-shaped into simple figures and painted. It’s no longer perfect, there are chips here and there but then the folks gathered around the manger were not perfect either.
One reason I like this so well it the number of folks gathered at the birth. I brought the nativity to youth group earlier this month and we talked about who this crowd of onlookers might be. There are 13. There are the obvious people. Baby Jesus. Mary, Joseph. A couple of shepherds. The wise men, who were not there that night but we merge Matthew and Luke and put them there anyway.
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THAT LEAVES LOTS of people left over. Who might they be?
I say they are family. This is a story about the power of family. God sends his Son. Mary hears words from an encounter with the angel. Those words “you’re going to have a baby” put Mary in danger. Unmarried pregnant women are often stoned to death. After she encounters the angel’s news of she goes to family (Elizabeth) and is sheltered. That’s what family does.
In music and art, and therefore in our minds, we’ve taken the Middle Eastern context out of this story. We envision Joseph and Mary being alone — on their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They wouldn’t be. They would have traveled in a caravan. We imagine them alone at the birth. Mary and Joseph are not in this alone.
We ignore people that would have been there even though they are not mentioned in the biblical account. They have come to Joseph’s ancestral home. They are with family and they are cared for. That’s what family always does, at least when it works the way it should.
Mary would have been surrounded by aunts and women cousins as she brings forth her firstborn son. The menfolk are nearby anxious to hear the baby’s first cry.
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DID YOU PAY ATTENTION to the reading? She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. The word is kataluma. The same word as the “guest room” or “upper room” where Jesus will eat the Passover with his disciples. In our mind an “inn” relates to a motel. Joseph and Mary stayed with family. There are so many relatives in town for the census everybody’s guest rooms are full. But Mary and Joseph are not turned away, they stay downstairs where the animals stay at night. They are cared for. That’s what family does.
In this world, family always provides shelter and support. That’s why Mary and Joseph are not concerned 12 years later when they are returning from their annual Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem: they supposed, for an entire day, that Jesus was in the group of travelers — with family.
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AN ANGEL APPEARS to shepherds in the fields, guarding their flocks. The angel says that a baby is born “to you.” The angel could just as easily have said that a baby was born to Mary, or the angel could have said that the baby was born to the family of David. But the angel says that the baby is born “to you.” The good news is the news of a birth, and the baby is born to a family. “Unto us a child is born.”
Even the shepherds are part of the family, maybe not biologically, but family nonetheless. Having heard the family news, the shepherds do what family does — they go to welcome the baby and to congratulate the parents. But they are not limited to noticing that he looks just like Uncle Mordecai or has a quarterback’s hands. They have the word from an army of angels, singing in the night, so they report that. That is what family does.
Mary, we are told, reflects on all of this, treasuring everything that has been said. This is what mothers do.
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SO, MY LITTLE NATIVITY from Haiti reminds me that our nativities are too sparse. And our idea of family too narrow. That means, perhaps our lives are too small as well.
The good news is for all people, the whole family so loved by God that he sent his Son.
— Keith Cardwell