The Story Of The Incarnation: Why It Matters What Story We Tell

Christmas Eve is here, and once again, followers of the Christian faith are celebrating the Incarnation–the moment when God became fully human, in a specific time and place in history. Much has been written about the ramifications of this, to embodiment, to the relationship between the Divine and creation. Today, however, I want to address a somewhat less-discussed aspect of this important moment in the Christian faith.

A few years back, author Sarah Bessey’s newsletter intrroduced me to the work of Kenneth C. Bailey–specifically his Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. One of the takeaways from that book is that, rather than Mary and Joseph being in a barn, lonely and cold, they would have been in the first century equivalent to a living room, with the a couple of animals lying by the front door keeping the heat in–and with plenty of women-folk around helping Mary through child-birth and welcoming the infant Jesus into the world.

When I first heard of this radically different understanding I was instantly struck by the power of it and was so excited that I wanted to tell everyone that we had got the Incarnation story so wrong. Yet when I did tell others, I was discouraged to find a less than enthusiastic response to the knowledge. And that threw me for a loop.

The most common response was often something along the lines of, “That’s nice, but how does it affect us today” or, “The debate over that doesn’t really matter to me.”. I was puzzled because I could sense how important this reframing was, but I couldn’t fully articulate it.

This year, I’ve decided to take another stab at it. Recently, I read Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bergman and that has helped me immensely in this regard. One of Bergman’s takeaways is that, by nature, humanity is more predisposed towards cooperation, compassion, and the like; yet the stories we tell ourselves matter–particularly when the placebo and nocebo effect, paired with the negativity bias, are added to the mix. Put another way, while all humans are essentially born “good”, if we tell ourselves we are inherently bad, then bad behaviour and actions can very quickly become a self-fulling prophecy.

In Christianity, the church elites of the 4th and 5th centuries, like Augustine, were influential in the development of the doctrine of original sin–a doctrine that the Eastern Orthodox churches always disagreed with, and which rabbinical Judaism would largely take issue with as well. What story we tell of the Incarnation is, I think, revealing in this respect.

The story that many of us in the West are familiar with is of Joseph and Mary traveling lonely and somewhat afraid to Bethlehem, struggling to find a place to stay, until one lonely innkeeper grudgingly lets them bed down in the barn with the animals. There, in cold hay, with only Joseph and the beasts of burden for company, Mary gives birth to Jesus, the prophesized God-with-us. In this story, our worst expectations of humanity are confirmed–Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are against the world, unsupported in a time of dire need.

In the alternative understanding, which Bailey makes a most convincing case is far more likely to be historically accurate, Joseph and Mary likely don’t travel all the way to Bethlehem from Nazareth alone; rather, they likely have a planned route and likely travel with kin. They likely have kin that they are planning to stay with, who are expecting them and honoured to offer hospitality; yet when they arrive, there’s more people than expected, so the guest room (alternatively translated as “inn”) is full; thus, Joseph and Mary are invited to sleep in the main room–the animals (likely a goat or donkey, maybe a couple of other animals as well) are brought in for the night, and sleep against the front door. Right inside the front door is lower than the rest of the living space, and a food trough, or manger, is right by that lowered space. When Mary goes into labour then, there are likely plenty of knowledgeable women to help her through the process, and welcome Jesus into the world warmly and fully supportive and caring. This version of the story tells a far different tale of humanity–a tale of strong and intentional hospitality, of bonds of kinship and community, of intentional care, welcome and strong compassion.

Which interpretation we subscribe to may not change the tenets of our faith–but it DOES have the potential to change how we view humanity, the nature of humankind, and what it MEANS to be human. I, for one, find the idea of an inherently good humanity, that welcomed God into the world in such a warm and inviting setting, as a far better and far more realistic story than the one we are traditionally told this time of year.

So I challenge you not to dismiss the power of how we view past events, and how we interpret stories and history, too soon. The stories we tell, past, present, and future, DO have real impact on how we live, how we behave, and the choices we make. Let’s be conscious of that power, and use it to build a better world now.

Amen.

Published by Devin Hogg

My name is Devin Hogg. I was born and raised in Carnarvon, Ontario, Canada. I moved to Guelph, Ontario, Canada in 2009 for university and lived here ever since. In my free time, I enjoy reading, watching TV and movies, going on long walks, swimming, and practicing Chen style Tai Chi. I love to write poetry and blog regularly about topics such as mental health, sci-fi/fantasy series, faith, sexuality, and politics.

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