Blessed Is The Fruit of Your Womb...

There's a line up of Christmas cards hanging on my wall with scenes like the one above. A quaint wee stable. Friendly animals. A healthy baby and a well scrubbed set of young parents gazing at him in adoration. They leave me a bit cold, to tell you the truth.

Partly that's because I am privileged (or cursed) to read the Gospel of Luke in Greek and know that the scene above isn't what is described there. "καὶ ἔτεκεν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς τὸν πρωτότοκον· καὶ ἐσπαργάνωσεν αὐτὸν καὶ ἀνέκλινεν αὐτὸν ἐν φάτνῃ, διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῶ καταλύματι."

Bear with me here. It's important. "And she gave birth to her firstborn son and bound him, and laid him in a Phatne because there was no room for them in the katalumati". A Phatne is a niche, a hollow carved into something else. It is sometimes a manger of a particular type,  i.e. one that is a hollow scooped out of a piece of wood or stone, but  more usually it refers to a niche set into the inside of the thick wall of one of those little first century houses of pressed earth construction. The usual word for an inn is πανδοχεῖον (pandochion), and by contrast  a kataluma is usually an extra room added onto a large house. (The upper room where Jesus ate the last supper was a kataluma.) So a fair reading of the Greek would suggest that Mary had her first born  in a house large enough to have an extra room; that the extra room was already filled when she arrived, probably with other guests in Bethlehem for the census, and that she and Joseph lodged in the main part of the house with the stove and the stores and perhaps the family animals. She wrapped her baby in bandages, in the usual way, and laid him in a storage niche carved into the wall in this lower part of the house. There was, in other words, no manger; no inn. There was the large house of a wealthy member of Joseph's family, and Jesus was born surrounded by his whanau.

The bit with the inn and the manger are the projections of the men who first translated the Bible into the common languages of Europe, and reflect the expectations of travelers in the middle ages and not those of first century tribal people traveling back to their turangawaewae. And the story has grown with the telling over the years, with a donkey, innkeeper, little drummer boy and Uncle Tom Cobley and all, with each bit of it reflected the cultural biases of the storytellers and each one building a story that is somehow sanitised. Each misses the wonderful reality of family and childbirth and each builds a story which, while it reflects our cultural prejudices, paints a scene that is removed from the real experience of all of us.

Just before Christmas I came upon another nativity, and it pulled me up short. Took my breath away. Caused me to stop and look and think and pray. Here it is:

It is a painting by Sara Star called Crowning.

Here at last is a nativity scene which takes seriously the human condition and the astonishing truth of the incarnation: the word became flesh. Recently I watched a wonderful series on the Middle Ages written, produced and presented by Dr. Helen Castor. The first of the series was on birth, and I was astonished to learn that there are very few written sources on birth from the middle ages. There are plenty on warfare and trade and diplomacy and the doings of the royalty, but what little there is on this most profound of human experiences was written by men, none of whom had ever actually witnessed a birth.

Birth was women's work, so it was ignored.

So our accounts of the incarnation and our pictures of it in the middle ages, and pretty much ever since, have all ignored the most important part of the word becoming flesh: Jesus was born. In doing this we have undermined the meaning and power of the incarnation, and by making Jesus' birth different from the births of the rest of us, pushed Christianity towards Docetism.

I find Crowning a powerful image, but of course even this is sanitised. There is no blood and the mother and baby are both unnaturally still and peaceful: it is an ikon, after all. It has been my life's privilege to be present at three births; each one pretty bloody and pretty painful, but each one ranking amongst the peak experiences of my life; each one different but each equally exciting and powerful; each one holy. I can remember almost every minute of those three events; and they are all reflected and held and celebrated here by Sara Star.

The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. Thank you, Sara Star, for reminding me of this, and deepening my appreciation of this central tenet of our faith. 


Liturgy said…
Thanks, Kelvin.

The BBC Son of God series did a good job of imaging Luke's picture of a full upper room as a sort of mezzanine floor with the animals below. You may have seen the reaction when I posted Crowning: Mary giving birth to Jesus. I will share your post on the liturgy facebook page.


Elaine Dent said…
Thank you, Kelvin. What a powerful icon!
Tony said…
While it was half a lifetime ago, your thoughts took me back to those times in Sumner when you opened the scriptures to me in very thoughtful, unapologetic ways that spoke with the authenticity of scholarship made accessible in ordinary language. You deepened me, and probably without realising it, gave me permission to continue the deepening.
Thank you Kelvin. Your friendship, though distant, is constant to me.
With every blessing to you, Clemency, and your family for the New Year.
Kelvin Wright said…
Since writing this I have read this excellent post by Lucy Peppiatt on the Westminster College blog
On Gods Mother