The picture above was me and a distant cousin in the ancestral town of my roots. What if Jesus were born in my ancestral village in China?
Now in those days, a decree went out to all ABCs (American-born Chinese) that all ABCs need to return to their ancestral village to be registered. Now Joe Chin knew his family name was not really “Chin” but “Hong.” “Chin” was just the false identity, the paper name his grandfather adopted to take on to immigrate to the US (during the time when the US excluded Chinese from entering the country.) So Joe also flew back to his ancestral village of “Hong” in Taison, the “biggest little hometown of American-Born Chinese (ABCs)” because he was of the house and family line of “Hong” (comparatively small Chinese surname compared to “Wong,” “Lee,” or “Chan.”)
Taison is not a “tourist” town in any regard and the “Hong” surname is not popular among Chinese. Yet the Chinese prophet reminds us about the honor given this small Chinese family, that they,“are in no way least among the popular surnames of China like “Wong” or “Lee” for out of the Hong family will come a ruler who will shepherd my people.”
So Joe went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, and who was expecting a child. Now in Taison, everyone knew everyone’s families by surname and what village they came from. As Joe walked into Taison with Mary, he was delighted to learn that most everyone knew his family name along with the possible villages that Hong’s would have come from. It was as if they had walked into a family reunion, a homecoming of sorts.
Joe needed to find a place to stay for him and Mary. Because they wore the “Hong” name, people welcomed them immediately as family, despite the fact that they had never visited Taisan before. Many really wished to offer the guest room of their homes. Yet house after house they went to, the guest room was filled. This had never happened before! But with the census going on, all the family guest rooms were full. To add to the mounting shame, everyone could see that Mary was pregnant.
Because Joe was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately. Why would he want to bring shame to Mary? When he had contemplated this, God sent an angel of the Lord. The angel appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Mary won’t be shamed. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” When Joe woke up, he realized God had spoken to him and that the baby will be born with utmost honor, that “God with us” would be born through Mary and Joe’s family line.
Jesus’ birth would bring honor to generations of Mary and Joe’s family line, even the “shameful” names of the line that included the concubines, prostitutes, foreigners, and more, names that our family would rather forget. Growing up, Joe only heard about those who did not “rock the boat” and especially about the dignitaries. He never heard about the ones who might bring shame to the family name.
Being that there was no guest room available in the whole village, Joe and Mary to stay in the main room of a family, the same room where the animals came in to feed from the manger when evening came. When the time came for her to deliver her child, people prepared one of these mangers to lay the baby. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger.
Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night. People in Toisan really looked down on them for a myriad of reasons. Their occupation represented the lowest class on the totem pole. “Don’t do your homework and you might end up as a garbage collector or a shepherd” was commonly spoken in many Toisan families. But the shepherd’s “shameful status” was about to change to an honorable status. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people: Today your Savior is born in a small passed-over village of a small surname. He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you that you, the most shamed of society like yourselves will be welcomed at this birthplace: You will find a baby among family, in the main room wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
2:14 “The greatest Glory and Honor to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!”
Sacrilegious perhaps? I feel my little creative piece helps illustrative some huge missing pieces from the traditional Western birth narrative. We forget that 1st century Palestinian culture would have been a LOT more family centered, and such would have been the context for the “real” Joseph and Mary. There was never the thought that they’d find an “inn” which Westerners might thought to be a motel or some equivalent. No, Bethehem would have known Joseph’s roots. And especially with Mary pregnant, they would have WANTED to have them stay in their upper guest room, translated “inn” in most translations. The IVP Bible Backgrounds commentary and the new NIV translation suggest, in my opinion, the more accurate “guest room” translation, suggesting family hospitality.
The shame honor narrative of the whole Bible hits a high point in Jesus’ birth narrative, and I tried to bring that out. But the ultimate crescendo of the shunning of shame is coming still in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Victory on the cross opened up the invitation for acceptance for all humankind.
The 1st century Palestinian culture provides a wonderful backdrop for these tensions to build and find resolution. But the oft-ahistorical, individual rendering through a Western lens deflates this grander telling…not just of the birth narrative, but the entire biblical story for that matter.
Boiling it down to simplest terms. The birth narrative invites us into it. And why should we step into it? We all have a need for shame to be resolved. “Shame resercher” Brene Brown called shame the silent epidemic. (more on this in a future post) The “sign” given the shepherds was one of utmost inclusiveness, to the most shamed – that any human, regardless of experience, can experience the honor of being in God’s family.