Advent Firesiders

Luke i (2010)

During the course of reading Henry Wansbrough on Luke I discovered that the traditional story of Mary and Joseph being turned away by a grumpy inn-keeper so that Mary had to give birth to Jesus in a stable is the result of a poor translation of the Greek word Kataluma, a large two-storey dwelling house shared by humans and animals. So when Mary placed Jesus in a manger, she was placing him nicely out of harm's way but within her eye line as she rubbed shoulders with the crowd on the human upper storey of the house. So, far from being born in almost total isolation, Jesus was born among the poor he came to save. Now that's a much more appropriate setting.

Still, I don't want to overturn the traditional Nativity Play nor ban all those carols about the stable with the Isaian ox and ass. Given that Geza Vermez has completely undercut the whole Lucan narrative, we aren't going to quibble over a mere detail. And, while we're at it, there's a malicious rumour going round that the real significance of the shepherds was that they were social outcasts because they were in breach of the Jewish hygiene laws. Well, they would have been if they'd been born after the Council of Jamnia (c90 CE) although, of course, Luke might have known about the Council and redacted but the consensus now seems to be that Luke wrote well before Jamnia.

Perhaps it was that very image of Mary leaning over the railing in the Kataluma to give her baby a comfortable berth that has finally brought her into focus for me. When I was a child in a Roman Catholic convent school she was the ubiquitous figure in blue, saluted in the routine recitation of the Hail Mary at the beginning of every class, at the Angelus and in chapel, she was revered in Novenas and she certainly had almost as many Hymns as Jesus. In fact I sometimes wondered whether the celibate nuns and priests clung to her as their mother figure in the absence of more earthly consolation. Then, when I joined the Church of England, the pendulum swung completely the other way so that many worshippers, no doubt in reaction to Romish excess, hardly gave Mary any room in their Christology and no room in their hearts. Then came the 'trendy' view of Mary as the "teenage mother".

What the placing of the baby in the manger in the Kataluma brings to mind is a gesture both tender and practical. Mary is neither enhaloed nor a run-of-the-mill teenage single mother. The gesture with the baby is neither sentimental nor pathetic.