Welcome. We are now in Advent, and also the time our thoughts turn to Christmas cards. This Blog is my contribution to the December edition of Voice, and so is intended as appropriate for Britain’s biggest selling black newspaper. However as a preacher I couldn’t resist adding a coda on the ‘guest room’ not ‘inn’ translation and its missional consequences.
Plus a comment on the shameful persistence of the ‘Windrush scandal’.
On Christmas Cards.
Have you sorted your Christmas cards yet? We buy ours immediately after Christmas for the year ahead through the National Gallery sale. It’s a nice win-win-win situation. Winning by getting good quality cards at half-price. Winning by supporting a Gallery that provides free access to great art. Winning since many of the Gallery’s cards are of masterpieces portraying the birth of Jesus.
I think this last point is important. I find cards that simply say things like ‘Season’s Greetings’ or ‘Happy Christmas’ quite forlorn since they don’t tell us anything to be happy about. Cards that point to the birth of Jesus give us a real event, not a vague aspiration, that is the basis for happiness. ‘I bring you good news of great joy’ said the angel to the shepherds. ‘A Saviour has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord’ (in Luke chapter 2). That joy comes when we recognise that we (and the whole world) in fact really do need saving. Christmas is about God coming to us in Jesus, to start sorting ourselves and the whole world out. He gives us our part to play in God’s kingdom of love, justice and peace. Whatever our circumstances, that is good news to make us joyful at Christmas – and lasting through the whole year.
However, I have a couple of problems with the Christmas cards I send. Many are of paintings done in Italy five or six hundred years ago. They often feature beautiful Italian countryside, fine classical buildings, and people who look Italian – in other words, white. They weren’t wrong to do that. Jesus is called ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us’. So those artists painted Mary, Joseph and Jesus, and most of the other characters (apart from one wise man usually being black), to look like the people they moved around with.
Of course, they knew that in his life on earth Jesus really didn’t look like them. He was a Middle Eastern Jew, probably with black hair and brown eyes and skin. Jesus was both a real character in history living two thousand years ago, yet someone alive today who we can call our friend. So it is right to paint him both as he would have looked then, but also paint him like one of us today.
The problems only come when we see those old paintings by white-skinned Europeans as portraying the good news for people of every race and colour. It can give the false impression that Christianity is for and about white people. It wasn’t when it began. It mostly isn’t now. That is why it is important today that Africans paint the holy family as Africans, the Chinese as Chinese, Indians as Indians. Wherever we are from, He is always one of us. I hope this Christmas we will see cards portraying Jesus and his family looking like all the different peoples under the sun.
The second problem with Christmas cards is that they often misrepresent what the Bible actually says. For example, they show the wise men arriving at his birth with the shepherds together, when they would have arrived weeks or months later. Nor do we know there were three; that’s just the number of their gifts.
But most intriguing of all the Bible doesn’t actually say he was born in a stable. Luke’s gospel tells that there was no room for his family in . . . where? Well, most translations say ‘inn’ but scholars now think a better translation of the original Greek word is ‘guest room’.
Imagine. All Joseph’s relatives are streaming back to their family home in Bethlehem. probably cursing the Imperial government that made them do it. The house is full to the brim, the guest room already full of visitors. But of course in that culture you don’t turn your extended family away, so when Joseph and a very pregnant Mary arrive they pack in with the others in the main room where not only people spend their time, but in those days many of their animals did as well - probably on a lower level floor to separate them off. There was no such think as privacy then. When the times comes for Mary’s baby to be delivered, they wrap him up in cloths and place him in a handy animal feeding trough. If all the seems strange to you, a book by the scholar Kenneth Bailey ‘Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes’ has a chapter giving the background to families and their houses in those days and helps put the birth of Jesus in its historical setting.
Maybe some of you will have the good fortune to spend this Christmas with family members travelling in from all quarters, making the home crowded and busy and happy. In fact, just like the home Jesus was born into. Again, it reminds us that he was ordinary, like us. Though mercifully you won’t have the smell of the animals.
Wherever you spend it, may you know the joy that Jesus brings this Christmas.
(See for fuller detail Ian Paul’s Psephizo Blog for 23/11/2021 ‘A seasonal reminder: Jesus was not born in a stable and it matters!)
The inn/guest room translation confusion leads on to the stable/home confusion. It is a confusion which I believe has distorting and harmful implications for our pastoral and missional understanding. The usually understood ‘inn’ and thence the ‘stable’ story fuels a romantic, indeed heroic understanding of Christian ministry that goes: Jesus was born as an outcast in a stable, so too we are called to identify with, support and be involved with the outcasts of our day. It is a picture of what we do that the woeful ‘Rev’ tv series played into. And, yes, the church often does address the needs of the marginalised, such as through running foodbanks and organising night shelters. We minister to society’s casualties. It is right to do so; it is how society often likes to see us, and it approves.
But that Jesus was born into the bustle of a crowded extended family, with the guest room already taken, tells another story. A story I believe that is more challenging and needing to be heard by the church today – the need to engage with the ‘ordinary’ people of our societies. Our central failure is with people who are neither outcasts nor especially influential, but with the people for whom Christmas is a festival celebrating the joys of being together, in families or at parties, but with minimal connection with their need for a Saviour or the joy that comes from knowing him.
If Jesus was born into a quite normal (though unusually crowded) home, that should set the focus and direction of our ministry. It applies equally to our ministry in a multi-ethic society, which again too easily focuses on and romanticises the exceptional, even the exotic, amongst ethnic minorities (thus the title of Jarel Robinson-Brown’s book ‘Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer’). But our major concern with minorities and people of all ethnicities is with them as they are engaged in the everyday tasks of building families, earning a living and being good neighbours, and how Jesus can be life-transforming good news in those lives.
The Windrush Scandal – Continued!
The news that the compensation to be paid to the victims of the Windruxsh scandal is so far behind schedule that it is to be transferred from the Home Office is an unbelievably scandalous further twist of a situation of appalling governmental institutional racism. It was fully recognised that treating as ‘illegal immigrants’ those who were brought to this country from the Caribbean by their parents several decades ago was appallingly harsh and unjust. So at the very least one might have thought that after the scandal had been uncovered and the routine ‘lessons learned’ gone through then compensation to the victims would have been paid speedily and courteously. Yet, no! As Yvette Cooper MP has said: “It is staggering, given the failures of the Windrush scandal, that the Home Office has allowed some of the same problems to affect the Windrush Compensation Scheme too”.
It is also remarkable how little attention has been paid to the Home Office’s inefficiency and neglect (or a ‘failure to deliver a professional service’ in Lord McPherson’s time-hallowed words) both by the general public, and by black people. Last week I commented that focusing on the Death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter in this country can be a displacement activity which draws energy away from less high profile situations in this country that need serious attention. Indeed I am bemused how little attention black leaders – in politics, academia or the churches - have paid to the whole scandal. I first knew of it from a white church member who voluntarily helped people with their immigration issues. When the scandal finally broke surface it was through the rather traditional and not British-based members of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Forum, rather than leaders in this country.
I think this feeds into the argument that ‘identity politics’ is a harmful distraction away from what should be the most important issues of political concern. Thus the contested issues of transgender rights figures high in public debate; the serious injustice of the lack of affordable housing which ought to be front and centre in political debate is largely out of the picture.
Why are there no marches and public demonstrations over the Government’s failure to speedily and fairly recompense the victims of the Windrush scandal?