Thursday, December 18, 2014

A New (and Truer) Look at the Birth of Jesus, or Giving a Break to that Poor Innkeeper

Ken Bailey, author of the groundbreaking book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, died last May. 

It was Bailey who helped me understand that, in order to understand the Gospels, I needed to see them through the eyes of people who lived in that place and at that time.

His perspectives were confirmed by my own, very limited, experiences in the Middle East, where I experienced the legendary hospitality of people in that region. 

While there I was invited into many homes, served coffee, sweets and sumptuous meals. Even the poorest of the poor offered what they could; to fail to show hospitality to a stranger would be unthinkable, and a grave offence.

What’s true today was also true in the biblical world, where the arid desert climate and distance between towns and cities made hospitality even more important—access to food, shelter and water could mean the difference between life and death. To not extend hospitality was considered an insult, or even an act of hostility. 

Which is why the traditional interpretation of the birth of Jesus in a barn rings so false.

Do we have the nativity story all wrong?

We know the story by heart: Mary and Joseph return to his hometown of Bethlehem, only to learn there is nowhere to stay. They find shelter in a barn, and Jesus is born.

This cold and uncaring reception has become a metaphor for how the saviour was received by the world—or not received, to put it more bluntly. Unwelcome and unnoticed, except by the animals and a few poor shepherds.

But is the way it happened? Theologian and Middle East expert Ken Bailey says no—there’s no way it could be true.

In his article The Manger and the Inn, Bailey notes that what our Bibles translate as “inn” is, in the Greek, the word kataluma, which means literally “guest room” and not “hotel.”

In other words, Joseph and Mary did not go hunting for a room at the biblical equivalent of the Holiday Inn—they went to the home of a relative, where they naturally expected to be invited to stay.

But when they got there, they found that the house was full with other relatives who, like them, had returned to Bethlehem for the census.

It’s sort of like what might be happening at any house today at Christmas, when many relatives show up. People are sleeping everywhere—rec room, spare rooms, in the office, on the living room couch. Where would you put up a cousin and his preganant wife?

Not in a hotel, and certainly not in the garage or a tent in the backyard. And neither did Joseph and Mary’s relatives, says Bailey.

Back then, traditional Palestinian homes had two levels: The larger upper level was where the family ate, lived and slept; the smaller lower level was for the animals, which were brought into the house for safety at night.

The two levels were connected by a short set of stairs, and a manger—a feed trough—was built into the edge of the upper level so the animals could stand up and feed at night if they were hungry.

And it was on the edge of that upper level, says Bailey, where Joseph and Mary slept and Jesus was born—not in a smelly stable, but in the comfortable home of loving relatives. 

If that’s the case, then there goes the annual Christmas pageant, with the adoring shepherds and angels gathered around the manger in a barn. But who needs the hassle of messing with centuries of tradition?

Bailey thinks it’s important for at least two reasons.

First, it takes terrible weight off that “mean old innkeeper” and all the cruel inhabitants of first-century Bethlehem.

“Is the entire village of Bethlehem so hard-hearted that no home is open to a pregnant woman about to give birth?” he asks.

Second, it makes the Incarnation “more authentic.” 

Over time, he observes, the birth of Jesus has become so mythologized that it hardly seems real.

“The traditional inn-and-stable scene succeeds only in distancing Jesus,” he says. “It makes it all so far away and long ago, the make-believe world of Christmas cards and medieval carols. If he had been born in Caesar Augustus’ palace he could hardly be more remote from real life.”

The birth of Jesus, he concludes, took place “not in exceptional circumstances, but in a very ordinary setting. We may picture him surrounded by the laughter and bustle and family goodwill of a comfortable if not palatial home.

“Of course, there are the smells and noises of the animals--but that is part of normal village life, and no one would wish it otherwise . . . Jesus is born in a real, live, warm, loving, crowded home, just as any other Jewish boy might expect to have been. 

"In other words, he is one of us.”

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Pets and Spirituality, or do Pets Go to Heaven?

My dog, Rikki.

Despite the many media reports, Pope Francis did not say that pets are going to heaven. Still, it would be nice to think that they did. And even if they don’t, animals can help us be better people in many ways, including spiritually, as I wrote about a few years ago.

“Goodbye, Kitty.”

That was the subject line of an email I received from a friend. In the message, she shared the sad news that her beloved cat, named Kitty, had died.

I sent her a short note, expressing my sympathy. She thanked me for the reply, saying she wasn't sure how people would react to the news. She worried some people might not understand how deeply her cat's death affected her -- it was just an animal, after all.

As someone who owns a dog, I know that isn't true. 

We got Rikki, our mutt, from a pet rescue shelter in 2001. Her previous owners had left her tied up in the backyard when they moved away. She has grown from an anxious, frightened animal into an affectionate and much-loved member of our family. We can't imagine life without her, and will be devastated when she dies.

Why do our pets affect us so strongly? There are lots of reasons, but I think it's partly because they help make us better people. Looking after a being that is totally reliant on you for food and care makes us more responsible and considerate. 

Observant owners can draw a parallel between the way a pet depends on them for everything, and the way humans depend on God.

But that's not all animals can teach us; they can also help us learn more about the life of the spirit. 

At least, that's what Jon Katz has discovered. The farm where Katz lives is home to a 3,000-pound steer named Elvis. Elvis, he says, has taught him as much about spirituality as any book on the subject or worship service.

"I've attended churches, Quaker meetings, synagogues, and Buddhist temples," Katz writes. 

"I've taken yoga and read Joseph Campbell, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine and the Bible. I pray often. But I had an unsettling realization recently, which is that my steer, Elvis, already has the spiritual equanimity I have been seeking. He is comfortable within himself, has no discernible anxiety, rolls with life as if it were a gentle wave, is uncomplaining, generous and loyal to his mate, and trusts and accepts people."

Cold, rain, snow, flies, ticks, mud and muck -- none of this disturbs him, Katz notes. "He is as peaceful covered in ice as he is taking in the sun with the Guernsey steer and his pal, Harold."

Elvis "doesn't have to work at acceptance, or retrain his mind to accept the bad with the good," he adds. "This, I think, is the spiritual centre of animals like Elvis, the thing that they can teach us and show us."

Thomas Merton, he notes, "wrote that one of the most important and neglected elements in the beginnings of an authentic and interior life is the ability to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things. Elvis seems to have that. I do not."

I have a feeling that Katz will be sorry when Elvis dies. Maybe he might want a prayer like the one below, that I found on the Internet. I sent it to my friend following the death of her cat.

"Thank you, God, for lending her to me. Because of her I learned a little more about loving, a little more about taking care, a little more about letting things be. Thank you, God. She is one of the nicest ways that I have ever met you. I really miss her. But I'm looking for some new sign of you. Please help me find it. Amen."

My friend replied with thanks, saying, "I sure hope animals get to go to heaven."

When I think of my dog, all I can say is: me, too. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Amble, Ramble or Hike: The Way is Made By Walking

One day I would like to hike the Camino in Spain. Until then, I will have to watch the new movie Walking the Camino, or re-read Arthur Boer’s great book The Way is Made By Walking.

My wife was in England a few years ago, teaching a course at a seminary near Manchester. One Sunday afternoon she went with her English friends on an eight-kilometre hike in the countryside.

At least, that’s what she thought it was. But, she was told, it was not a hike. It was  a “ramble.”

It turns out that the British have more than one word for walking. A ramble, for example, is different than “amble,” which is a long walk in a park.

A “walk,” meanwhile, is something you do to get from your house to the corner store. And a hike only occurs when someone walks 32 kilometres or more.

By that definition, Arthur Boers went on a very long hike—800 kilometres, and just to get to church.

Boers, who teaches at Tyndale University College in Toronto, hiked the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, in 2005.

The famous and ancient pilgrimage runs from southern France to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. It ends at a cathedral that is purported to be the final resting place of the Apostle James.

The journey, which crosses four mountain ranges, was “hard and tough,” he says.

The arduous trip took 31 days, and included a visit to a hospital to treat his badly blistered feet. But although it was hard on his body, it was a refreshing spiritual experience.

“Pilgrimage is a way to become totally involved, body and soul,” he says. “Very few things we do today engage us so totally.”

Boers has written a book about the journey called The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago. 

The Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s oldest and most famous pilgrimages, rivalling Rome and Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. 

Over the past 1,200 years millions of people have walked the route; today it travelled by thousands each year. 

In the book Boers describes how a simple act like walking can become a spiritual activity, and how Christians today can experience pilgrimage even in the midst of their busy lives.

For Boers, the trip was a time to recall the history of the church, think about major themes of Christian faith, and reflect on the ancient practice of pilgrimage itself.

“Pilgrimage is more about the journey than the destination,” he says, noting that the days were filled with talking with the new friends from around the world that he met along the way. 

At the same time, he had a profound sense of meeting God as he walked, prayed and reviewed his life. 

“As I looked back, I had a deep sense of God’s presence and comfort in my life,” he says.

Some of his fellow pilgrims found it strange that a Protestant would go on a pilgrimage—something that has been traditionally thought of as a Catholic practice. 

But, Boers says, “the walls of the Reformation are coming down,” and more Protestants are thinking seriously about spiritual disciplines like pilgrimage. 

As well, he notes, many people who do not profess Christian faith at all are being drawn this ancient form of spiritual practice, he notes.

“A prominent paradox of my sojourn, and the one that surprised me and taught me the most, is the fact that so few fellow pilgrims I meet counted themselves as Christians,” he says. 

Even more surprising, he adds, is that “these folks ended up teaching me more than I realized I needed to know.”

Not everyone can walk the Camino de Santiago, but Boers believes that everyone can experience pilgrimage in their own lives by walking, or by taking time out of a busy schedule to serve poor people or fix up a house in the inner city. 

“Whatever expands your sense of spiritual direction can be a form of pilgrimage,” he says.

Even something as simple and everyday like going to church can be like a pilgrimage, as long as people go there “with the hope and expectation of meeting God.”

“Jesus calls us to live out and practice what he taught and modelled, to walk the walk," Boers says. “All pilgrimage unfolds as God leads and we are invited to follow. 

“The way commended by Christ has to be journeyed. It is made by walking.”