“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-13
I have heard it said that the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. There is truth to that statement. While I can think of examples of people who love but are also very much indifferent–narcissists and egotists come to mind, one could argue that theirs is a distorted love motivated by greed or a selfish desire for comfort, prestige, or fame. Perhaps, therefore, I would amend the statement to read: the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference to God’s love.
God’s love is what Christmas is about. God’s love is not indifferent or selfish, but deeply involved and committed to the life and well-being of the world. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We celebrate Christmas because God’s love is not indifferent.
When we believe in this love, when we receive it and love one another with it and through it, we cannot be indifferent. God’s love born at Christmas in Jesus is love that changes the whole creation by bringing all things into relationships of sacrificial care.
The story of Jesus’ birth that I grew up with is a story of the world’s indifference to God’s love. Mary and Joseph are coldly turned away from the inn to find only the shelter of a stable for the birth of Jesus. However, the more accurate, more indigenous, story of Jesus’ birth is not one of indifference, but of welcome, care, sacrifice, and hospitality. It is not a story of cruel human hearts, but of God’s love at work in human lives and families.
To understand this, to see it, requires an indigenous perspective. The Christmas Story is much better understood in the context of a first-century Palestinian village and through the eyes of a first-century Palestinian family.
Joseph has taken his pregnant wife to his home village—his family village, Bethlehem. They have arrived in Bethlehem and are in need of a place to stay. Their need is even more urgent given the proximity of Mary’s due date. Therefore, we can imagine Joseph did what anyone would do when coming home: he knocked on the door of his family. In Bethlehem, there would have been many “family homes” where he could have knocked.
If you ask anyone from one of the villages here in Alaska what would happen if they were to show up in their village and knock on an auntie’s or a cousin’s door—or any door for that matter, they would tell you that they would be given a place to stay even if the house was crowded It should go without saying that this would be even more true if the person knocking was a young woman about to give birth. No one is turned away in their home village.
The same was true for Joseph and Mary. The narrative that has them being turned away by an indifferent innkeeper (or two) is a Western narrative based on a misinterpretation, a translation out of context, of two words in Luke’s text: the words ‘room’ and ‘inn.’ The Greek word that has been translated as “room” in our Bibles, does not refer to a room like you would rent in an inn or hotel; rather the word refers to a space or an area, as in there is no space on my desk, no room on my floor. Moreover, the word translated to inn does not refer to a business that rents rooms—like a hotel or a motel. The word is katalyma, and it is best understood as a guest room in a private home often built on the roof of the typical first-century one-story Palestinian home (katalyma is the same word used in Luke’s gospel for the upper room where the disciples and Jesus shared the last supper). Nearly every house in Bethlehem would have had a katalyma—a room for guests or visitors to stay.
The story of Jesus’ birth from an indigenous Palestinian perspective reads more like this: Joseph and Mary knock on the door of one of Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem–Joseph’s home village. Though there is no room, no space, in the guest room–or, more likely, no space in the guest room appropriate for Mary to give birth, they are not sent away with indifference. Instead, they are welcomed into the house, given shelter, hospitality, care, and LOVE. They are not sent away by an innkeeper to seek shelter in a cold stable, instead space is made for them where space was available—the family’s main living room. When God’s love opens the door indifference is sent away, more room, more space, is always available, and Mary and Joseph are welcomed in.
We can be sure of this because of the details of the story. Jesus was laid in a manger, and in Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth, mangers were found inside a family home. A modest family home typically had one bedroom, one guest room—the katalyma (often built on the roof—hence an upper room), and one larger living area. At one end of the main living area, a space was enclosed by a low fence. Here the family livestock were housed during the night, where they were safe and where they also provided heat to the home. Mangers were dug into the living room floor by the fence so that the animals could stretch their heads over and eat while remaining separated from the living space.
In such a manger Jesus safely slept.
Jesus was not born in a cold barn, the victim of indifference. He was born into a warm home, where his mother was cared for by loving kin; where, because there was no space in the guest room, Joseph’s family sacrificed their living room. Jesus was born where love was not indifferent; but in a home that likewise would welcome unclean shepherd’s that first Christmas Day and, not much later, foreign travelers—strangers, who would come following a star.
That is the Christmas story: a story of God’s love casting out darkness and indifference in this world, the darkness, and indifference of human sin.
God’s love is not indifferent. Christmas is proclaimed when the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given something to drink, the stranger is invited in, those in need of clothes are given clothes, the sick are looked after, and the prisoner is visited (Matthew 25:35-36). When God’s Christmas gift of love fills the human heart it makes room for caring, for hope, for relationships, for LIFE!
Let us rejoice and sing the glorious news that angels, shepherds, and the star proclaimed that first Christmas Day; but more than this, let us show forth God’s Christmas gift of love in our lives by putting indifference to shame.