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St. Thomas parishioner Lola Wilcox offers three reflections on the gifts of Advent.
Matthew opens his gospel with the “begats of Jesus’ lineage. Jacob begat “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called the Christ.” (Matthew 1:16)Matthew clarifies that Jesus is not of Joseph’s begetting.
When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child by the Holy Ghost.
Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.” (Matthew 1: 18, 19)
Matthew tells how Joseph dreams, and does as the angel bids. He marries Mary “and knew her not till she had brought forth her first born son.” (Matthew 1:25) Matthew’s account then leaps forward to Herod and the wise men.
Tradition has Luke interviewing Mary. The story seems to emphasize a woman’s point of view. Luke tells about Mary’s elder cousins, the silenced Zacharias and Elizabeth, miraculously pregnant with John to be the Baptist. Then:
And in the sixth month (of Elizabeth’s pregnancy) the angel Gabriel was sent from God … to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph… (Luke 1:26, 27)
Luke records Gabriel’s salutation, Mary’s troubled reaction, Gabriel’s admonition to fear not, and the news she’s been selected to birth the Messiah. Perhaps the angel saw something in Mary’s face that needed comforting. Gabriel tells Mary:
… And, behold, thy cousin Elizabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.” (Luke 1:36. 37)
Immediately Mary goes in person to confirm what the angel said. We can only wonder what Mary thinks and feels as she hurries to Elizabeth.
Arriving, Mary salutes her cousin. Elizabeth greets her:
…Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb…For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.
Elizabeth gives the gift of confirmation. Mary is not delusional; she is pregnant with the Messiah. She responds with the Magnificat. What a conversation must have followed. Mary stays until Elizabeth’s baby is born, returning home three months pregnant. Luke’s second chapter opens with Caesar Augustus’ decree.
Prayer: Let the gifts of the Spirit within me be confirmed.
No Room at the Inn?
Two gospels give information about Mary’s Advent, and two about Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. Matthew opens with linage, tells of the Annunciation, of the angel convincing Joseph to marry his betrothed, then leaps to the wise men visiting Herod, and following the star to Bethlehem.
…And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child and Mary, his mother… (Matthew 2:11)
We must go to Luke to find “no room at the inn”.
…And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manager, because there was no room for them at the inn… (Luke 2:7)
Which is it? If it’s a house in Bethlehem, it’s Zacharias and Elizabeth’s, Mary’s cousins. Elizabeth’s miraculous child, John to be the Baptist, is six months old. The stable is on the ground floor, the family living above. The roof is flat, and used in warm weather. The stables are dry and warm, and cleaned daily. The animals are cared for as part of the family. But why would Mary have the baby in the stable? Perhaps quiet: to be away from the going and coming of a busy household. Perhaps blood: by Jewish law a birthing site was “unclean” for forty days. Joseph could be with her and the baby in the stable.
What about the inn? W.F. Albright’s did extensive research on populations at the time of Jesus, and estimates around 300 people for Bethlehem, with six children under one year of age. Still, an inn might be a viable business because Bethlehem is very near Jerusalem. During High Holy Days people need places to stay. So we can give Bethlehem an inn. The usual reason given for why there was no room is it was full of people required to return for the census. That’s the reason why Joseph and Mary have come. But giving birth in the inn would have made it “unclean”; no travelers, no commerce there for 40 days. Maybe offering the Inn’s clean stable was a generous act.
We might decide to argue “the truth,” using facts, medieval texts, great scholars’ research. Or we might embrace the possibility of Advent: reflection. Consider holding the options in your heart, following where they lead you, receiving the waiting gifts.
Prayer: Let me accept the gift of options.
A Camel in the Kitchen
The church Christmas pageant happened on the final Sunday before Christmas Eve. Whoever was in charge of Sunday School headed up the effort. Parents were encouraged – maybe pressed – into helping. Help ranged from gluing fluffy feathers on angels’ wings to herding children into the sanctuary at the right moment. Some parents did a lot; some dropped their children off at the door.
The Anderson-Soames were helpers. This year they had been asked to create a camel for the crèche. Both children and clergy agreed that a camel was there, and there wasn’t one, so would the Anderson-Soames build it? They bought wood, chicken wire, yellow fleece for the body, and brown felt for its large eyes. The only place to build it, even kneeling, was the kitchen so it could go out the patio doors.
The Anderson-Soames had five children, three of them adopted. The church organized the pageant parts by age, with the youngest grades as angels, next youngest shepherds, next Roman soldiers checking people into Bethlehem, and the last, wearing bathrobes, as the Wise People. This year the Anderson-Soames twins were old enough to be Joseph and Mary, the middle children a Shepherd (boy) and a Roman Soldier (girl). “Mary” and “Joseph” complained that being in the pageant was for babies. The youngest replied “I’m not a baby, I’m an Angel.” This comment was met by hoots from his siblings.
The pageant ended at the crèche in the church’s inner yard, with parishioners in their coats singing appropriate carols. The camel looked on as Mary put the doll in the manager, the Angels sang their final Hallelujah, the Shepherds and Wise Ones placed their presents, and the Roman Soldiers rattled their swords warning of the Child’s death to come. Then everyone went in to the Great Room for hot cocoa and cookies. The children, sans costumes, ran around the tables, and parents and seniors leaned their heads together and shared Christmas secrets.
Mrs. Anderson-Soames said “I like that the children grow up playing each character. They see the story from every perspective.”
“Yes,” her husband agreed. “It’s a gift they will have with them all their lives.” And then he told his wife his secret. “I liked making the camel in the kitchen. I liked the story from the camel’s perspective.”
Prayer: Lord, thank you for the gift of more than our own perspective.
Lola Wilcox is the author of Spiritual Seasonings and The Still Room Book, plus many plays and short stories. She is planning to launch her author website on Epiphany, 2019. She joyfully attends St. Thomas Episcopal in Denver. She holds M.A. degrees in both Medieval Literature and Group Counseling, and a 2nd degree rank in Kendo (Japanese fencing).