Some friends and I have some Iranian folk we have been getting to know over the last 8 months or so. They are here in the UK because they are Christians, and it’s not safe for them in Iran. Their stories are difficult to hear, as they have weighed up the cost of leaving and the cost of staying, and in the end, made the decision to come to this country.
So we had all been invited round to H and S’s for an early Christmas dinner to give our Iranian friends a taste of Roast Chicken and all the trimmings, yes, including sprouts, and with Christmas pudding to follow.
When we meet up each week we always spend some time looking at the Bible, and today we read parts of the accounts of Jesus’ birth from Luke and Matthew’s Gospel.
Luke 2 verse 7:
7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
We were asked to consider why it was that there was nowhere for them to stay ? After all, we are told earlier in verses 3 & 4 that Joseph was returning to Bethlehem for the census, because that was where his family were from. He would almost certainly have had cousins, or uncles and aunts living in Bethlehem, or at least visiting for the purpose of the census.
So why were they having trouble finding somewhere to stay ? The popular idea, arising from a mistranslation, is that they went to try and stay at an inn, but had to sleep in the stable because there were no rooms available. Remember all those nativity plays where there’s an innkeeper who send them to the stable ?
The mistranslated word is the word ‘inn.’ There is another word that would have been used if the writer had actually meant ‘inn or hostelry.’ The correct translation would be more like ‘guest room.’
This makes much more sense than Joseph and Mary traipsing around Bethlehem looking for a pub with spare rooms. It’s more likely that they have gone to the house of a relative, and been told that although the guest room is already taken, they can sleep in that part of the house where the animals are kept.
But another question arises. Why would someone from your extended family make you sleep with animals when you are clearly heavily pregnant ?
To understand that, we need to look at Matthew’s account of the birth.
Matthew 1 verses 18 and 19
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[i] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we read that there’s a problem with this pregnancy. Joseph and Mary are betrothed – promised to one another – but not yet married, and not yet intimate.
In a dream, Joseph is reassured that it will all be OK. He should take Mary as his wife, and bring the child up.
But even so, there was bound to be a stigma attached to the couple. here’s an unmarried couple, about to have a baby, and even worse, (if they are aware of the back story), Joseph is not the father !
So when they turn up on the cousin’s doorstep to be in Bethlehem for the census, there’s a dilemma for the cousin.
There’s the shame of giving house room to an unwed couple about to have a bastard child, but the cousin also has the strong family responsibility that will not allow him to just throw them out on to the street.
You can imagine the conversation:
1 Who is it ?
2 It’s cousin Joseph … come for the census
1 Well, invite him in then!
2 Ahh … I’m not sure we should.
1 Why’s that ?
2 He’s got someone with him – a young girl.
1 Oh. Did we know about that ?
2 I’m not sure … and there’s more …
1 Yes ?
2 She looks like she’s expecting a child.
1 So Joseph got married and didn’t tell us, or invite us to the wedding ?!
2 No, he’s not married, and he says the child is not his.
2 What shall we do ?
(Long pause and muttering that last a few minutes)
1 I suppose we’d better find a place for them to stay.
2 Yes, we should. After all, he’s family.
1 But where can they stay. The guest room wouldn’t be right.
2 No, I agree. What about with the animals ?
1 That sounds like a good idea.
2 But what about the neighbours and cousin Malachi ?
1 It’s a no win situation I’m afraid.
2 No. We can’t be seen to condone their situation …
1 But we can’t just turn them away ….
I know this is reading between the lines, but I’m guessing this is close to what was going on. Added to that – we don’t hear about family coming to visit. The first visitors were shepherds. They ranked very low on the social scale.
And the other visitors – magi (wise men) who came to visit the child probably came some time later, as it describes them coming to see a child, not a baby.
So two unlikely groups to visit the ‘new born king’ – a king who is born not in a palace, but in a humble home among animals.
So here’s the point of this blog post … better late then never.
We’re sitting there in H and S’s house, about to have our roast dinner, and we’re reading this story and thinking about it together ….
And there in front of us, in H and S’s living room, is a carved nativity set. Y, One of our Iranian friends had commented earlier, when he saw the Nativity set – Ahh, there are the Iranians …
I did a double take. Iranians ?
In Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 2, we read:
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men (astrologers) from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
I know this verse well. Wise men from the East.
But what I hadn’t grasped is that these were most likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran, who had been reading the stars and seeing in them a prophecy about the birth of a new king.
It felt like a precious moment, as we remembered together that Jesus came for all in society, even to those disregarded and ignored by many.
And that Jesus came for all nations, shown to us by wise men from Iran, bringing gifts for the infant Jesus.
To be there in that room felt like an enormous privilege. As we met with 21st century Iranian Christians.
What is sobering to realise is that our Iranian friends have come to find refuge in our country, and are, like Joseph and Mary in the Gospel, often not treated with dignity, and find themselves in accommodation that is not suitable, and sometimes waiting years before their case is heard.
We pray for all our friends, and the many thousands in situation like theirs. And we pray for the nation of Iran. For peace, for an end to discrimination, imprisonments and killings. And for religious freedom.