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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Candlelight Services at 4:30 and 8:00 p.m.

Presented by Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Being at Home

Christmas Eve Candlelight Service Homily

By the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

December 24, 2013

O magnum mysterium… o great mystery.  

The choir sang the gorgeous piece we just heard, “O Magnum Mysterium”  by Morten Lauridsen, a few weeks ago for their annual holiday choir service. Afterwards, I asked them what it was like to sing it. One of them replied, “transcendent.”  Likewise, it is a transcendent, otherworldly experience to listen to it, too, isn’t it?

O magnum mysterium… o great mystery.  Or, oh “marvel” and “awe,” as the Worship Associate Carol Boston said of the aspects of the story that for her never get stale - “the knitting together of human and other-than-human worlds, the marvel of an infant safely born in whatever circumstances, the relief that a long trip ended well, the awe at witnessing something brand new in the world.”

The text for “O Magnum Mysterium,” an inspiration for many composers over time, refers to the Biblical Christmas Story. It suggests it to be a great mystery that the new-born King came to life amongst the lowly animals and shepherds.

As I said in my sermon a few weeks ago, we may not think of Jesus as King. We may understand from the Biblical story that his parents were poor and lowly themselves, forced to travel for miles on donkey and foot to register with the government, for the privilege of paying taxes. And so we may see no mystery, only class distinctions, in the fact that they were taken in for the night to share the straw bedding of the inn-family’s livestock….

Actually, I’ve done some reading in the last few weeks that suggests I was somewhat wrong about that. Since then, I read the nativity accounts in The Jewish Annotated New Testament – that’s right, a new Jewish commentary on the Christian scriptures. With entries and notes by leading historians of Judaism as it was at the time of Jesus and the movement that he sparked. This volume provides insight about what is known about the culture, beliefs and customs of the people of that day to shed light on the text from a historic not faith perspective. (Edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, pages 4-5, 101-2).

Also, I’ve read an analysis of the nativity story by two conservative Christian authors who draw on the original Greek text for new understandings of the words in the scriptures. (“Was There Really "No Room in the Inn"” by Mario Seiglie and Tom Robinson in The Good News- a Magazine of Understanding published by the United Church of God. http://www.ucg.org/jesus-christ/was-there-really-no-room-inn/.)

From these sources, I learned that it is extremely unlikely that Jesus was born in an inn. The Greek word used in the text, translated as “inn” in English, did not mean a public inn for travelers, as our telling of the story conveys – there was a different word in Greek for that, used elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures, like in the story of the Good Samaritan. The Greek word in the nativity story means the “guest space” of a typical Judean home of the time, an open space where guests could be accommodated in the home in that culture’s tradition of hospitality. So, when the text says, “there was no room in the inn,” it meant there was no space in the guest room of the family’s house for the birth.

You see, with the expectation of a birth and therefore the usual gathering of women to attend birth, there would definitely not be enough space in the guest room if it was already full of people staying there.

Also, a careful reading of the text shows us they had already been in Bethlehem for some days when Mary went into labor. Remember, it says, “So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered." So, they’d been staying with the family for a few days and, when it came time for the delivery, they moved into the only quiet space available. But it wasn’t a stable.

Such homes didn’t have stables. Typically, the family’s livestock were kept in the home at night, on the lower ground floor level, above which were the family’s cooking, eating, living and sleeping space and the guest area.  The animals were moved out in the daytime and the area cleaned. At night, they fed or drank out of a trough, i.e. the manger. So, in that open space, with the animals moved out, there would be space enough for the birth.

I find all this fascinating and illuminating. But, also very disappointing. Where’s the mystery, marvel and awe now???

I mean, the story as I learned it and have preached it, made some really important points:  Jesus was not of the elite of his times, diverse people and varied animals were welcomed to meet him, and despite, or perhaps because of, the travail of their travels, the young couple – soon to become parents, but homeless – were able to make themselves at home in a mere stable. It’s a good, rich story and it has served people well over the centuries.

It is that last idea – of being at home no matter the circumstances – that captivates me this Christmas Eve 2013.

At a time of year when many people travel, and many others of us host, this story suggests that people can be at home anywhere. For the most important of our life-events, we need only ourselves and, if we are so blessed, the people we love. If each of us would only let go of our expectations of the occasion and find what is provided sufficient, everyone involved – host and visitor - would feel so much more at home.

What does it take for you to feel at home? Can you enjoy your self, and others, wherever you are? How like Mary and Joseph are we? On our life journeys, hoping it will go well, making do with what we find along the way and yet also not giving up on what we truly need – remember, Joseph visited several homes before he found one that took them in. 

What does it take for you to feel at home? I’ve never been homeless, or even without shelter for a night unplanned, so my statement that “we can feel at home wherever we are” is definitely suspect. And brings me right back to the class distinctions to which I referred at the beginning.

Yet, at Christmas time especially, I want it to be true.

I want it to be true that homeless people, such as those we here at PBUUC will shelter for a week a month from now, do feel at home wherever they are.

I want it to be true that children traveling to be with their parents for the holidays do feel themselves to be at home, even though they’ve grown and changed since last they were there.

I want it to be true that all who are hosts will plan sufficiently for the guests to feel at home, but let go of the expectation to create perfect visits.

I want it to be true that our days together with family are joyful days, and that every birth is heralded with the joy that met Jesus on his birth so long ago – not in a stable lowly, but in a Bethlehem home into which his father and very pregnant mother had been welcomed, probably by simple people like themselves, as was the custom of the day.


Let us sing of that Joyful Day, #236, O Thou Joyful Day. Please rise in body or in spirit to sing together.

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