A messy story, please.

This is from the Passion translation of the Gospel of John, chapter 1. I love the more familiar versions rather more, but it’s good to explore other ways of telling the same story, a new way of expressing the old truth;

In the beginning the Living Expression was already there.
And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God.
They were together—face-to-face, in the very beginning.
And through his creative inspiration
 this Living Expression made all things,
 for nothing has existence apart from him!
A fountain of life was in him, for his life is light for all humanity.
And this Light never fails to shine through darkness—
    Light that darkness could not overcome!

I really understand how the Word, as in other versions, can also be the Living Expression. That Christ is both the Word (the Gospel, the truth) and the Living Expression (of God’s reality) seems to close the circle for me. To make perfect undeniable truth of faith.

Hey – getting all geared up for Christmas I thought there would be a soppy old Hollywood snowy film on the box but I’ve just watched ‘Resurrection’ starring Joseph Fiennes, a good (not wonderful, but good) film covering the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It’s a strange choice for a broadcaster in Advent, right enough, but it was refreshing to see a film that made a serious attempt to tell the Christian story. I went to bed wondering why, although it was head and shoulders above most films about Jesus Christ, it was still simplistic, unsatisfying. And then I realised – in the daily life portrayed there were no struggling donkeys, no messy village streets, no manure, no dirt anywhere, no dust, no heat, no sweat, no washing drying in the sun, no flies (except in the exhumation scenes), no filthy feet, no snotty crying children, no torn clothes (except the artfully designed tatters of a few clean beggars) and the Jewish people spoke the same perfect language as the Roman conquerors, and a Jewish Rabbi pulled out a seat and sat down with a Roman governor (unconcerned about uncleanliness) and all the disciples spoke with the same inflection and accent and everyone was well educated and neat, and no one swore, and the fishing boats were picture-book smart…..Israel in the year 32 was, apparently, quite like Eastbourne in 2021.

I have lived in Egypt. It was a long time ago but I still remember. And I have photos….

I’m sorry this so out of focus – his little lad would sit on the swing with me.
And this shepherdess would lift her veil to waggle her long loose black teeth at us, so that we screamed in delicious fear and ran away, with her waving her stick and laughing fit to bust

We lose something precious and revelatory when we forget that the world Jesus was born into, and died in, and rose from, was very very different from the world we know, now, in the West.

If we want to find a modern comparison with the rural life of Israel, back then, we’d probably have to go to Iran or Iraq, or Afghanistan. If we wanted to find a comparison with the rule of Rome, where would we go? North Korea doesn’t quite cut it. Or a society crippled by religious bigotry? Afghanistan again? None of them quite present the environment that Jesus came into. Jesus was born into a very particular and idiosyncratic time and place.

God didn’t send his Son into a well organised and respectable world of finely balanced diplomacy, or into a community served by social services and utility companies. God chose to become man in the chaotic, oppressed, religiously bigoted, poverty stricken, primitive world of the Middle East. There were two worlds in Israel’s cities – the streets and the Roman Garrisons, the haves and the have-nots. The Romans had sewers, the Jews did not. The Romans had civic law, the Jews had ritual, the Romans had wealth and might, the Jews had poverty. The film paid no attention to any of that.

Outside the Roman garrison society there was a divided rabble, with many tribes and many languages, and we get a vivid description of that in Acts 2 when the Apostles started to speak in a language understood by everyone ‘Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ No film could do full justice to a society as rich as that, but this one didn’t even try, didn’t acknowledge the variety of clashing cultures in any way at all. Everyone was quite civilised and reasonable and well spoken.

The more I reflected on ‘Resurrection’ the more I realised what a disservice we do to the Gospel when we sanitise it. The world the film makers showed us bore no relationship to reality. In that region trees are precious, with no great areas of forest, so fuel for the fire was dried dung, piled high in the sun… water was drawn from a well serving a whole village….. animals were slaughtered at home, bleeding to death in the dust …. bodies were buried quickly in the heat… women died in childbirth…. life expectancy was short… birth defects were common… leprosy was rife… girls were mothers as soon as they menstruated… theft was punishable by amputation… adulterers were stoned to death… crucifixions were arbitrary… life was short and cruel.

This is the world Jesus was born into. Messy, dirty, harsh. And he was born into a world of vicious, greedy men, into the very religion that would want to kill him from the moment of his birth, and would succeed when he was in the prime of life.

But it’s not all grim – the old fable that there was no room for them at the inn is probably a misunderstanding of the word translated as ‘inn’. Mary and Joseph had walked many miles to Bethlehem, to join family there for the census, and just about all the theologians and archaeologists agree now that Jesus wasn’t born in the stable of an inn, but at a relative’s house.

The theologian Rev Ian Paul tells us ‘The actual design of Palestinian homes (even to the present day) makes sense of the whole story, most families would live in a single-room house, with a lower compartment for animals to be brought in at night, and either a room at the back for visitors, or space on the roof. The family living area would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with straw, where the animals would feed. So Jesus would not have been born in a detached stable, but in the lower floor of a peasant house, where the animals were kept.’

Emmanuel was born in a sheltered room, dry, sweetly smelly from the animals, lit at night by lantern… cosy. I’m glad. But still, hang on, not that cosy and safe, birth is messy and dangerous- there’s the pain and the urgency, the contractions, the mother trying to understand what each new feeling means, should she push? Is this normal? And then the first sight of the baby’s head (you hope not his foot or bottom) and then the baby, the waters and blood and placenta… messy. And that’s how Jesus was born. A messy process.

From eternal glory to humanity. For us. The cute tableaux we set up in our homes at Christmas are good reminders, but they don’t tell the story of God’s sacrificial love.

The world doesn’t want to recognise that this is the greatest, most dramatic story ever told, visceral and shocking, and so it turns it into a cosy fable for children. What a terrible waste of the greatest gift, the greatest story, of all time. And the only story that ultimately matters.

“The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”  Mere Christianity CS Lewis

I wonder if I will ever fully understand the great gift of Jesus? There are moments when I almost do. And then I remember that I must give Percy his eye drops, or I wonder if I’ll have time to start the Christmas cake tomorrow… and the moment flits away. I want to sit still in the amazement of Christmas, I want to comprehend the dirt and heat and sweat of Bethlehem, the pain of birth, the trauma of that first breath to every child and especially to this one, I want to be aware of the rough linen on his tender skin, and to remember that this was for me. For me. For you. For every one of us.

For here is the way God loved the world—he gave his only, unique Son as a gift. So now everyone who believes in him will never perish but experience everlasting life. John 3:16 TPT

What a gift. What a gift.

PS. !!!!!

I got up from the screen, put the TV on for Masterchef and what did I see? These…. a manger scene, a white Mary, a blond Jesus… just one more cosy tale for five year olds. Aaaaaargggghhhhh!

No no noooooo!

3 thoughts on “A messy story, please.

  1. We lived in Libya in 1968 in a small town along the coast. It was messy. Old men riding little donkeys. Dust, flies, and girls leaving Renie’s classroom at 12 to get married to a much older bloke. We once saw the movie, I think it was made by the country singer Johnny Cash. The music was great but Jesus was a blonde California surfer dude!
    Great blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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