by Rev. Collette Broady Grund
In my 16th year of ordained ministry, I may finally have run out of sermons based on a traditional reading of the Christmas Eve story from Luke’s gospel. So I’m wondering, is this the year to (gently) disabuse people of the notion that the Holy Family was relegated to the unholy barn out back for Mary to give birth with only the untrained Joseph by her side?
Part of me thinks no! Perhaps in this hard year, my people will want the comfort of the familiar nativity scene complete with its lily white Jesus and immaculately groomed postpartum Mary, under the adoring gaze of some equally well-groomed animals.
But the other part of me (which is winning in this moment) thinks that in a year where so many hard truths about our lives have been revealed, maybe it is exactly the moment for a more truthful telling of Jesus’ birth narrative. Because honestly, this truth is not hard at all, it’s just different. And jaw-droppingly beautiful.
I won’t go into all the details here, because you can google it, but if we read Luke’s story in the context of first century Palestine, a new picture of Jesus’ birth emerges. Mary and Joseph were invited into an already crowded house (it was the upstairs guest room that was already full, not the inn) by a family of strangers who saw that Mary was about to have a baby away from home and decided to help. There on the lower floor of their house, where courtyard merged with kitchen and living space and animal sleeping quarters, Mary was attended by women from that home and neighboring households who knew what she didn’t about birthing babies. Meanwhile Joseph likely helped feed the animals and watch the children while he waited for news about this baby who was and wasn’t his. And when he was born, the women helped Mary wrap Jesus in clean cloth and learn to nurse, while the men refreshed the hay in an old manger so the new mother could have a safe place to put Jesus and sleep.
This means that the miracle of the Christmas story is not only about God taking on human flesh and being born in an inconvenient time and place, but about the radical hospitality those families in an unknown neighborhood of Bethlehem gave to a family they didn’t know was holy. They simply saw an enormously pregnant stranger in the early stages of labor and knew they couldn’t turn her away. And because they didn’t look away when a stranger needed their help, they witnessed the birth of God in their own living room.
The hospitality of this family extends even to a bunch of the town’s shepherds, who came in the middle of the night telling crazy stories of angels in the sky. “Why not?” that holy householder must’ve said. “Come on in, the house is already overflowing!” We often call Mary, Joseph and their baby the Holy Family, but it would be entirely appropriate to call the family that housed Jesus’ birth holy, too.
And for that matter, to call all the families that practice radical hospitality holy:
* The holy family in my congregation who found a homeless mother and her three children in the Fleet Farm parking lot and took them home to feed them and keep them warm until the local shelter opened for the evening.
* The other holy family in my congregation who not only raises four children of their own, but welcomes both daycare and foster children into their home and treats them with love equal to their own.
* The holy families who’ve accompanied migrant children separated from their parents at our country’s border.
The miracle of Christmas persists not only because of Jesus’ ongoing presence in the world, but through the radical hospitality of all those who see a person in need and say, “Why not? Come on in.” That Bethlehem family then becomes one in a long line of holy families who extend radical hospitality and inadvertently welcome God’s own presence into their midst.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.