Did the cousins Jesus and John know each other? Did somebody tell them that in fact they already knew each other before they were born? Did Jesus know about the shame his mother bore? Did John know that he leapt up in his mother’s womb when he heard the voice of Mary, pregnant with Jesus, greet his mother Elizabeth? (Thank God Mary did not ask for an abortion). They must have heard from mothers, fathers and relatives about the very special circumstances of their births. In this painting, they again meet each other. And perhaps they tell each other…! Very special and yet so ordinary. A little bit like: “It happened in those days…” In Arabic: “Kaen ya ma
‘In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken…’ (Luke 2:1)
I remember how once we had taken the children for a picnic out to the desert, and when evening had come I wanted to teach them about the stars that were like heavenly signposts along the way. I picked a star and told the children that we would follow it west, just like the Wise Men from the East had done on their camels, towards Jerusalem. We drove on, not bothering about roads and tracks as they were invisible in the dark anyway, and occasionally and with some showmanship I would check the star to see whether we were doing all right. Well, we weren’t and I lost the star, realising too late that I had picked not a star but a satellite, that had decided to embarrass me by disappearing out of sight, right out there in the middle of the desert. Sometimes I have the feeling that the Almighty goes out of His way to teach me, us, humility. Or is it His sense of humour? Here I have another tale…
Jesus and Santa Claus
In the “Holy Land” many homes and Churches will be decorated with plastic Christmas trees, colourful decorations and lights to brighten up the celebrations. The images of a stable with Jesus’ family, the visiting shepherds and the wise men are prominent. But the sheep miss the typical fatty tails (pure cholesterol, delicious when barbequed) and long wool, the donkey has no large black cross to decorate its back (see the picture in ‘Peace be with you’), the plough-ox looks like a cow though it probably should be a huge black buffalo; and goats – the ever present Middle Eastern domestic animals, are missing.
Father Christmas, red outfit and bright white bushy beard, and ringing a bell, is everywhere although nobody quite knows, literally and figuratively, where he came from and how he fits in. Some will ask whether he really came all the way from somewhere to visit Jesus in the manger? Or were they perhaps family? And what could his hidden motives be for bringing us presents?
There was no room in the ‘Inn’
In the days of Jesus the Messiah – the Christ, Bethlehem was a hamlet of some 25 houses or so, inhabited by people of whom probably many carried the proud family name of King David, the son of Jesse, of the tribe of Judah. Many of the houses would have been like the popular cave-dwellings, one large room with the floor at two levels: in the cold winter the animals were kept at the lower level, functioning as a kind of central heating to keep the cave beautifully warm; in the hot summer the animals were kept outside and the cave would remain delightfully cool. The higher level, some two or three feet above the ground, was for the living quarters. During the day it was the sitting room and at night mattresses were rolled out to turn it into a bedroom. Another elevated area was for the kitchen, and in a corner, a small open fire was kept burning, probably stoked with dung, for the ever-present tea or coffee.
When a cave had to be enlarged because of a growing family, the stones and rocks hewn out of the walls were used to build a guest room on the roof or beside the front door. This special room would be for relatives and other guests, and it is known to many of us as ‘the prophet’s room’. Families vied for the honour of having relatives stay with them in their ‘guest room’. A hotel or ‘Inn’ was not needed – (this is a faulty and misleading translation. In fact, the upper room where the last supper was prepared, was a similar ‘guest’ room) – for not staying with relatives was not an option and would have been an insult, just as it is today.
The living room
When the Roman Emperor wanted a census, everybody registered in his own ancestral village, town or tribe. The sleepy town of Bethlehem was suddenly full of an influx of people that included the more affluent families and prominent personalities, who obviously would have the best guest rooms. Joseph the carpenter, with pregnant Mary, had somehow not been able to beat the traffic to arrive on time from Nazareth and get a decent room. They tried uncles and cousins but there was no place for them in the guest rooms, in the ‘inn’ so to speak. Finally, an aunt must have pitied Mary and invited them into the living room of the typical eastern, Bethlehem home (remember, the guest room had been taken!). There, in the living room and among the family on the higher level, and with the animals on the lower floor, she was made welcome, amidst the sheep and the goats for milk and wool, the cockerel and the chicken for the eggs, a buffalo for the ploughing, a cat for the rats, and a guard dog to keep wild animals out, the donkey for shopping, plus a food trough and plenty of straw.
In the living room of your house
When her time came, the floor of the elevated living room was swept, clean straw spread about, a bed made for Mary, the trough cleaned and prepared with cloths for a crib for the baby, the children sent outside to go and play with the neighbours, the husband told to fetch the traditional midwife and warn the next-door aunt that there was work to do, and for the rest stay out of the way. In Salt, we also had such a midwife, who in her old age would still go out to serve the people after having helped some 4,000 babies into the world. Her name was Matiel Najjar and her family name meant “the Carpenter”. I was always proud to call her my aunt. And so Jesus the Messiah, Mary’s firstborn, the Son of Mary and Joseph the Carpenter, the son of David of the tribe of Judah, the Son of God, was born! He did not really choose a stable, although he was born among the animals that were at home for the season; he chose to be surrounded by family in the sitting room of an average home, or perhaps in a poor house that had been shunned by the early visitors and relatives, in a totally insignificant spot in the universe. In the living room of your house, among your family, in your everyday lives, in our hearts is where he wishes to be born today! Right there where we are! Can you imagine? That is the miracle of Christmas!
In the living room of your house, among your family, in your everyday lives, in our hearts is where he wishes to be born today! Right there where we are! Can you imagine? That is the miracle of Christmas!