The Bishop of Oxford’s Christmas sermon

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Congratulations on being amongst the 13% of people in Britain going to church this Christmas morning. That's nearly 8 million people, but according to a news report earlier this month the average British Christmas today goes a bit differently. A survey across 4000 families showed the following average timings for Christmas Day. 8.19 – open presents (it used to be 5.30 in ours); 8.39 – first bite of chocolate; 9.57 – first family row; 11.48 – first alcoholic drink; 3.24 – Christmas dinner (I thought it was just vicars!); 4.58 – first person falls asleep. And so on.

It's all very family-centred. We do our best to be together on Christmas day, even if there are lots of family tensions around. And the whole advertising of Christmas is predicated on the image of happy families gathered around the dining table or the Christmas tree. But there's another side to Christmas. 50,000 young people will be 'homeless' at Christmas, having left home or been thrown out of home for a whole range of dysfunctionalities. The number of Big Issue sellers in Oxford city centre yesterday told its own story too. The other side of Christmas is homelessness.

But that's part of the Christmas story too. The well-worn Christmas narrative tells of a God who lets himself be homeless in a fragile world. There are two expressions of that homelessness. The first is the picture we're all used to of a vulnerable family for whom there's no room at the inn, and who have to be packed off to the stable round the back. Of course, we don't know that it was a stable – it's the Nativity plays that say that, the gospels don't. It's most likely that the place was a cave behind a house or an inn. Indeed the Greek word used for inn 'kataluma' usually refers to the upper guest room of a family house. It may be that there was no room for Mary because it was a family house (Joseph's family perhaps) and the room was already full because of other family visitors who'd come for the census. Mary therefore had to go to the warm cave at the back of the house where the animals were kept. So it's a cave, not a stable, that we see under the Church of the Nativity today.

But whatever the actual place, there was no room in the 'kataluma', the ordinary, civilized places. Jesus was homeless.

Read the whole thing.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalAnglican ProvincesChurch of England (CoE)CoE Bishops* Christian Life / Church LifeChurch Year / Liturgical SeasonsChristmasParish MinistryPreaching / Homiletics

2 Comments
Posted January 10, 2010 at 5:26 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. driver8 wrote:

I liked the part of this that is quoted above. But “kataluma” doesn’t quite mean the “ordinary, civilized places” and Joseph and Mary aren’t sleeping out (thought the Gospel has surely already told us they were not in their own home). Rather it probably means something like “guest room”, “upper room” or “dining room”. In other words the image in Luke’s Gospel is probably that, for whatever reason, Joseph’s relative’s “guest room” is filled and so Joseph, Mary and Our Lord (and perhaps other relatives - Luke 2.18?) have to stay in the room in which the animals are kept safe overnight. I seem to recall that Ben Witherington has a nice little piece about this. Likewise see the sample pdf chapter from Kenneth E. Bailey’s, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.

January 10, 6:59 pm | [comment link]
2. driver8 wrote:

The point I’m making is that in a first century context the homeless motif the Bishop identifies is slightly overplayed here. What is ordinary and civilized looks different in the context of the first century. Our Lord’s family are surely portrayed as not wealthy and if there is a contrast being drawn it focuses not on their homelessness but on the lack of wealth of the Holy Family. In other words, they are “ordinary” - not the most desperately and vulnerably poor (such as day laborers or beggars) who might truly have found themselves homeless - but absolutely not those who lived in palaces such as Augustus and Quirinius. Of course, homelessness is present in the Gospel tradition in the context of Our Lord’s itinerant ministry and the demands of following him but in the birth narratives it is not that the Holy Family are rejected by their relatives but that come from an “ordinary” rather than elite background.

January 10, 7:30 pm | [comment link]
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