Monday, December 12, 2016

The dark back story of the Christmas nativity scene

The birth of Jesus, often celebrated by many Protestants and Christians in the West and the East, is usually regarding as a festival of joy. However, beyond the joy and fanfare of this event, is a hidden and dark back story, which I will reflect on in this blog post. (And no, this post is not about the pagan origin).

While I was brought up not to celebrate the event, I have decided not to exclude myself from events where Christians reflect on the event or story central to the faith and recorded in the Christian Scriptures. I have indeed gotten weary of the rhetoric of "othering" done by Christians to exclude other Christians, and feel that even Jesus himself would have gone to a Christmas service in his honour, regardless of the time and season, even if it was not his birthday. As Matthew 18:20 suggests, "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them" (NIV).

That said, I discovered the dark and hidden story behind the nativity scene when I painted a picture depicting the scene and later told the story to parents and children at church. Then I attended a carol service with my children and further reflected on the story. I discovered, that while we often see the nativity as a scene for celebration, of joy, hope and peace, we ignore the dark back story of exclusion that precipitated it.

For Mary and Joseph to have their baby in stable or barn, they were first denied access to housing. The Bible is silent about the circumstances leading to that unavailability of housing, especially for a pregnant lady due to give birth. It is often portrayed that the city was full and perhaps overcrowded at that time. Yet it seems strange that this would have been Joseph's home city or town and that he would have virtually no friends or family still living there to stay with. That he would have to go to an inn, the equivalent of our modern-day hospital, motel, or hotel, was a sign it itself of something very sad.

There seems to be a darker side under the story where Joseph had to resort to an inn to provide housing and shelter for his wife. It wasn't just that Mary and Joseph could not find a room. It was that friends and relatives of Joseph were not willing to have them stay with them. Maybe they inquired about the marital status. You know the way that your relatives and friends would ask you why they were not invited to the wedding if you showed up at their house with a pregnant lady, especially within a religious and ceremonial society. Further, the inn keepers may also have inquired about marital status and rejected room to them based on the issue on the grounds of "fornication".

This is the dark back story of religious intolerance where those who were religious felt that this couple were "sinners" to be denied access to housing suitable for humans due to the gravity of the perceived sin. Even friends and relatives were ready to dissociate themselves from their own flesh and blood so that he would need to wander the streets to find lodging among strangers. That Joseph would be forced to spend money to secure a room, in an era where home birth by midwives was more normative than it is today, for his fiancée rather than lodge for free with those whom he knew for years and with whom he grew up is indeed sad. No one wanted anything to do with him nor his pregnant fiancée at this point of need. Could it be so bad that the only room they qualified to access was a room stinking of animals and animal manure? A far from hygienic place for bloodletting and delivering a baby?

Far from being a story of joy, I feel the pain and sorrow of Joseph. No wonder God the Father and the angels decided to cheer them up by sending a welcoming party of shepherds. God had to provide some people to welcome the couple as well as to let them know how special they were to God.