One lovely image of the Christmas story has been resonating with me this season. It started when I read a blog post addressing the cultural context of the Bible.
It pointed out that we often assume Mary and Joseph were alone in the Christmas story. Blogger Yo Steve says:
Here's one example of their work in action. A Western individualistic perspective assumes that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem alone, gave birth to Jesus alone and marveled alone as shepherds and wise men came to pay homage.
But the Bible doesn't say that they were alone. That's an assumption. What if they traveled with family, the way they traveled to the Temple later in the same chapter of the Bible? It doesn't dramatically change our theology, but it shifts our reading of the passage.
This perspective has influenced my approach to the nativity this year. I am overflowing with so many questions.
I’ve always envisioned harsh innkeepers shooing away a pregnant teenager. Is it possible she was one, perhaps unnoticed, person in a crowd of family members searching for lodging?
If her family were present, how did they feel about her pregnancy? One Christmas film that interviews modern day residents of Bethlehem discusses “honor killings.” According to their understanding, Mary’s family would have been expected to kill her for the shame of an unmarried pregnancy. So… how did that go down?
Was she surrounded by women - aunts and cousins and maybe her mother - at the birth? Did they believe her story? Did they not care? Were they supportive or suspicious? Did they coo at the baby, help Mary learn the ropes as a new mom?
Interestingly, it’s also made me look differently at the nativity scene at our home. We purchased the set shown above while in Guatemala, an admittedly more collective culture.
Every year, when I set it up, I can’t tell who Joseph is. There are four male figurines and they all look the same! And they’re all carrying gifts.
Also, there’s a second woman. She is holding what appears to be bread, while the other is clearly “treasuring these things in her heart,” so I make a confident judgment call. Still, I’ve always been like, who is this second woman and where is the shepherd with the lamb around his neck?
This year, I’ve simply wondered if this set was created with a different perspective, one that made assumptions that more family was present. Maybe not. But the questions fascinate me.
So I set it up a little differently this year. Inched the second woman in closer to the action. Kept those guys a little closer to Joseph rather than clustering them as my symbolic “wise men” off to the side.
And I’m inspired to read more. I’ve ordered the book Yo Steve was referencing (Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible). I want to better understand the context into which my Jesus was born, lived and inspired.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. How have you imagined the setting of Jesus' birth? Where and how does culture influence your understanding of the Bible? What questions do you have about the nativity?
Join the email list to receive posts in your inbox and to receive the FREE typographic download of Desmond Tutu's quote about God's diversity (image featured in the sidebar).
Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links, meaning if you purchase an item via my link, I will have the opportunity to toss money in the air and holla "make it rain!"