A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land, whilst there I discovered a new interpretation of the Christmas story which made a real impression on me and how I approach the time of advent.
In a small corner in a Church courtyard in the small town of Taybeh you’ll find a door. Inscribed over the top is ‘House of Parables’ and as you enter through the door you are transported back. Back to another time which for most of us is filled with mystery, inspiration and wonder. The tools on the wall, straw on the floor and layout of the house is so far from our own culture, our own lives and work. It draws you in and you can’t leave unchanged.
This house is filled top to bottom with tools and resources to help access stories and parables from the bible including the lost coin, the tale of the sower and sorting the wheat from the chaff. This third Century building, though ‘not very old for Palestine,’ gave an insight into a past I could only imagine as a child, and access to a world almost identical to that of Jesus and his disciples. Guided by one of the resident Sisters of the Rosary and a keen local, we discovered many parables in their country of origin – as if we were learning them for the first time!
The one that stuck with me the most was the Sister’s description of the Nativity:
‘How long have you been in the Holy Land now?’ the Sister asked.
‘Two weeks’ I replied.
‘So you must have experienced Palestinian hospitality by now, you must recognise the western interpretation of the Nativity is wrong?!’ she returned.
I stood there frozen, shocked even. What did she mean I had understood the story wrong?
Slowly she pieced it together for me. You see, Palestinian hospitality is God’s Kingdom on Earth. They welcome you in with no hesitation, and provide coffee, tea, prunes, whatever they may have, no matter how little they may have, whatever time of day or however much of a surprise it may be. And so the Sister continued, ‘you see, with this culture of hospitality, no one, especially a pregnant lady, would have been turned away because there was no room at the inn.’
And so with one simple encounter, one change of perspective, my world was turned upside down. The traditional story, nativity, of a nasty inn keeper and poor vulnerable Mary and Joseph just couldn’t ring true with this experience.
You see, in this home, as with many at that time, the sleeping, eating and cooking area was the same small square area in the house. When the census was called these rooms would have been loud, tight and accessed via a tight flight of stairs, quite unsuitable for a heavily pregnant Mary. Indeed, the Sister urged that we must look to the stable as a place of generosity, rather than the last option left. Often located under the building, the stable would have been easy to access, warm, quiet and calm; the perfect environment to welcome a child into the world.
In that moment, and even today, I wonder at this perspective, so Mary was not turned away out of spite, but care. I can only imagine someone running along to each house looking for somewhere with space, with a warm welcoming stable, the best place to give birth away from the chaos and noise. I can now only picture the family/inn/person who welcomed the Holy Family as clear examples of what Paul was writing about in Hebrews 13:2 when he said ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’
This Christmas, I hope to embody this interpretation of the Nativity and the Palestinian hospitality I was so generously given. To welcome the stranger, to provide them with warmth, even if that’s only a smile, a cup of tea or coffee, or a pair of gloves.
We pray that advent opens our hearts and fills them with compassion for the stranger, for the asylum seeker, refugee and those in need. That our homes, places of work, charity and country become places of sanctuary, of welcome and hospitality and that we may notice the angel, and God’s presence in each and every person this may bring to our door.