We were set an interesting question first thing this morning when, in preparation for the group visiting Bethlehem, we had an introductory lecture on the birth narratives that we find in Matthew and Luke and what the members of the course would find in the city of his birth. The question was not so much how do you reconcile the Matthean and the Lucan accounts of the nativity but how much we actually know about Jesus. ‘If you were asked to fill in a birth or death certificate for Jesus how much do you, do we, actually know?’
It was a good question. First name – Jesus. Surname ….. well, it’s not Christ, uum, not sure … Barjospeh? Well no, that would never do. Barabbas? Well we saw the confusions around that name in a former blog! Leave it blank. Mother – Mary. Father – back to the questions again. Place of residence of the parents – well Matthew says Bethlehem, Luke says Nazareth. Place of Birth – we’re back on course, Bethlehem, we all know that. This form requires two witnesses with home addresses. Well, some Magi came according to Matthew, but they were strangers and deliberately left no forwarding address so Herod couldn’t trace them. Luke mentions shepherds but they’re definitely of no fixed abode. Angels are unreliable witnesses as far as form filling is concerned. Perhaps old Simeon and Anna will do – and the address for Anna ‘The Temple, Jerusalem’ could not be better, the best postcode in town.
I’m being facetious but only to make the point. We know few ‘facts’ about Jesus and the facts we do know are disputed and depend on faith. Do I go with Matthew who tells us that the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem or with Luke’s Nazareth based story? Do I go with an annunciation to Joseph in Matthew or to Mary in Luke? Do I go with a story of persecution and slaughter that mirrors the actions of Pharaoh wanting to kill all the Hebrew boys as Matthew tells it or one of welcome in the Temple as Luke tells it?
Of course, in just a few weeks time as we watch children perform nativity plays in our schools and churches, as we go to Nine Lessons and Carols in our cathedrals and parish churches, we know that we deal with the complications by ignoring them and just squashing everything together. The shepherds will trip over the kings in the crib scene even though their paths never crossed. We cope with it because we know that the story has a deeper message that does not simply involve the ‘facts’ with which a form could be completed.
In fact I didn’t go with the group to Bethlehem and nor did Canon Wendy Robins, the Bishop’s Press Officer for Southwark. Instead we went into the West Bank to visit two projects, to find out more and see how we might support them. One, Jeel al Amal in Bethany, I had visited many times before. The other, Al-Shurooq School for the Blind, in Beit Jala, a village on the edge of Bethlehem, was new to me.
In both of these we saw Jesus at work, in action, through those who believe in his name. Both schools have Christian foundations but serve the whole community regardless of faith, ethnicity, or gender. Both serve children who have severe needs – at Jeel children who are orphans or have endured terrible domestic problems; at Al-Shurooq those with no or little sight and some with multiple physical and mental needs. In both tremendous work is being done by Christians for the whole community.
We heard of a little boy, deaf-blind, who was living in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Jericho. His family didn’t know how to care for him – so they didn’t. He was found wandering, filthy, no shoes and the school was able to take him in. He is now beginning to communicate and gaining confidence. He goes back to his family at weekends who are better able to cope with him as a fieldworker is supporting them. He returns to school, smart and washed and ready for the week.
A little boy came to meet me, blind and with some learning difficulties. He hugged me and smelt me so that he could recognise me again, stroked my arms as Isaac did with Jacob and his brother Esau. It was so poignant and resonant with the scriptures. By this stage Isaac was blind and when the younger son, Jacob, eager to deceive his father and gain his elder brother’s blessing, dressed his arms in goat skin and himself in his brother’s clothes and approached his father, we’re told that the patriarch’s response was this.
So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, ‘The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau …Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed. (Genesis 27.22, 27)
The boy tried to say my name. It was extremely moving.
The fact I know about Jesus is not what his surname was, nor the precise details of his birth, but that those who follow him do the work that he did and bring his light into darkness, his life to where death stalks, his truth where lies are powerful, his justice where injustice stunts lives, his riches where there is poverty. I know Jesus when I see him and I saw him today.
Jesus, my Lord,
bless those who in your name
proclaim good news to the poor
freedom for the prisoners
recovery of sight for the blind
and set the oppressed free.