For many folks in our culture, Christmas–even if they keep
the birth of Jesus in their conscious–has become a time to expect
specific gifts rather than to bask in gratitude that we are gifted at
all, however small the gift. There’s competition among certain
religious groups and subgroups over whom Jesus was primarily
given or sent to so those who regard themselves as God’s
favorites gloat at Christmas. There are huge differences between
gloating and gratitude.
Someone has pointed out that expressing gratitude or saying
thank you to a person is nearly as important as saying I’m sorry
when I’m in the wrong or expressing sympathy in response to
loss. Back when I was teaching the geography of religion
segment in a Human Geography course, I stumbled upon an
anthropologist’s research pointing out that In many traditional
societies all over the place, the first words taught to a child
capable of initiating her or his own verbal responses were,
“Thank you” spoken to their elders, to visitors in their homes, and to other children.
Just about everybody appreciates being thanked for a
good turn even though they may brush it aside by saying, “Oh, it
was nothing.” Saying thank you is a polite way of telling other
people that their help was appreciated and neglecting to say it
may be taken to mean that the good deed was not appreciated
and may have been unwanted.
One of the three or four giants in the field of pastoral theology in the twentieth century was Dutch Roman Catholic scholar whose last teaching post was at Yale Divinity School. The following beautifully stated insight is from the late Henri Nouwen:
In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneousresponse to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realizethat gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. Thediscipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledgethat all I am and all I have is given to me as a gift of love, agift to be celebrated with joy.
Perhaps the last thing we should be concerned about when
pondering gratitude is what expressing can do for us, but this
might be worth tucking away for further reflection some other
time. A couple of years ago, some researchers at Kent State had
a group of student volunteers agree to write one letter every two
weeks. I’m sure stipends must have been involved! Each letter
written had to be expressed positively from start to finish. The
guidelines stipulated that some insight and reflection had to be
evident and not of a trivial nature. Finally, each letter had to
contain a significant portion of its content focused on gratitude.
What do you suppose happened? After each letter, the
researches asked these university students to complete a survey
to gauge mood, satisfaction with life, and overall feelings of
happiness–all of which increased with each letter written. The
more they wrote these gratitude-filled letters the happier they
Angeles Arrien has said:
There is a fundamental spiritual quality to gratitude thattranscends religious traditions. Gratitude is a universalhuman experience that can seem to be either a randomoccurrence of grace or a chosen attitude to create a betterexperience of life; in many ways it contains elements of both.Grateful people sense that they are not separated fromothers or from God; this recognition of unity with all thingsbrings a deep sense of gratefulness, whether we arereligious or not.
Christmas means gratitude, or it should. Therefore, as part of
our contemplation in today’s Gathering I want to visit two places in
the Christmas story where thank-you’s were certainly uttered
even though the Gospel writers do not report them. The Innkeeper who has been perpetually portrayed as a villain in the Christmas story because he had to tell Mary and Joseph there was no room in his Inn for them was actually no villain at all. He was politely letting them know that there was no room for them to sleep in his Inn and especially given the likelihood that Mary was going to deliver a child in the next few hours. Inns in those days were not individual rooms the way we expect to find our accommodations when we book a hotel or motel today. Rather, they were big wide open spaces where people kind of in the style of a hostel were given space to spread out their sleeping gear and to sleep there for the evening. So the Innkeeper was actually a good guy for protecting Mary’s privacy and also for offering them the only place he had to offer them, that was a place to have privacy for the delivery of the child in his barn. The barn may have been attached to his house, which what was not uncommon, or it may have been built nearby and would have looked something like a pavilion probably less than what we would call a barn today. Or it may have been a nearby cave.
Many of you know about the vast uses of caves in many parts of the world historically and today. Some of the oldest art we have preserved in tact are sophisticated cave paintings, not stick figures by any means. And today, our own Margaret Walker, for
example, has just returned from a wonderful, amazing visit to
Morocco where a part of her agenda included having lunch with a
woman who lived in a cave. That must be an upcoming forum
topic. How many churches all across the land today could say one
of our members has recently been to Morocco where she ate
lunch with a cave woman?
In many ways the Innkeeper was a life-saver for
accommodating Mary and Joseph given the vast number of
travelers crowding around Bethlehem and other key cities for this
mandatory census; there weren’t many places available, much
less a place for a woman to have a baby in the night. Therefore I
can imagine smiles of gratitude on their faces when he said there’s no room in the Inn, but there’s a more suitable place I can make available to you; it’s in the barn.
We mentioned last week that in the Pope’s new book he says there were no animals at the manger. He still apparently believes that Jesus was born in of some kind of a barn-like setting and perhaps even laid in a manger, a feeding trough, though animals were not there at the time of his birth. I don’t get this, and I don’t see what difference it makes. I don’t know how all this information came to the Pope. But I do know that much more has been made of animals attending the birth of Jesus in Christmas carols than the Gospel writers take the time to describe. I make a number of assumptions based on the fact that since Jesus was born in a barn, barnyard animals such as cows and sheep and goats were close at hand.
The kindness of the Innkeeper made all the difference. No
words of gratitude are recorded in the story, but if the events took
place in any way like they are described by the Gospel writer then
we can be assured based on a culture that put so much emphasis
on hospitality that the beneficiaries of hospitality at the very least
would have said, “Thank you; thank you; thank you so much.
How could we ever repay you for making this space available to
If not for the Innkeeper’s concern, Jesus may well have been
born along an unsafe, darkened roadway somewhere. As it turns
out, though, he was born in this space either attached to the Inn
or somewhere close by, and it is my kind of common sense
reasoning that because Mary was a young woman, a teenager
about to birth her first child, that the Innkeeper’s wife and/or
perhaps some of the women staying in the Inn that night took the
roles of midwife to help Mary deliver her first baby. I can’t imagine
it would have been any other way. If that’s the case then we have
another instance of Mary’s gratitude, and probably Joseph’s too,
being expressed. “Thank you; thank you so much for helping our
baby come safely into this world.”
A poem-prayer by e. e. cummings:
I thank You God for this most amazingday: for the leaping greenly spirits of treesand a blue true denim of sky; and for everythingwhich is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.Tell you what. In place of the angels and the Magi and theanimals in your crèche set, add the Innkeeper and his wife.
Another part of the Christmas story where gratitude was most certainly expressed though the writers didn’t chronicle it was a thank you from Mary to Joseph for having confidence in her and believing that he was the father of her child as an act of God
comparable to the way old Abraham impregnated Sarah as an act
of God. It took God to make everything work properly when there
was no Viagra.
We had a study one Wednesday evening years ago when we looked at the possibilities for who Joseph might have been. We sorted through details about his life, possible details, that might help us understand something about him. Had he been a young man getting married for the first time he would have been about 17 or 18 years old and his bride about 13 or 14 years old. But it was not uncommon for older men to marry younger women if the appropriate arrangements were made between the man and the girl’s parents. Nor was it uncommon or unlawful for a man to have more than one wife. We kind of leaned that evening, those of us who were digging into the study, to the idea that
Joseph was probably an older man. Betrothal arrangements were
a step beyond engagement but not yet to marriage. Apparently
sexual relations were permitted at the betrothal stage.
The thing is Joseph obviously had not been confident that all of his parts still worked properly; therefore, he had no idea how Mary could have been impregnated. Mary tried to explain to him that God worked it out and divinely compensated for any possible deficiencies so that what he thought could not have happened indeed had happened. “Thank you for trusting me and believing me against odds, Joseph,” said Mary.
A significantly different twist for your consideration. A few
years ago we had Dr. Robert Miller, one of the Fellows of the
Jesus Seminar and a professor of religion at Juniata College in
Pennsylvania, return to Silverside for a second set of lectures. He
is a liberal historian early Christianity, rubbing scholarly elbows
with likes of Elaine Pagels at Princeton and Bart Ehrmann at the
University of North Carolina.
One of Dr. Miller’s lectures was on the subject of Jesus’
paternity. One of the theories he dealt with at length was the
widely held notion in the ancient world, and I warn you before i
say it that it is so shocking to some as to send painful emotional
currents through your system. The theory was that Mary was
raped by a Roman soldier during an invasion into the lands of the
Jews about a year before Jesus’ birth, roughly 7 BCE using the
flawed calendar in use since the Middle Ages when a Vatican
scribe dozed off and lost his count of years he was adding up. Given the lateness of the hour and his nearly burned out candle he chose to make his best guess and call it a night. Thus Jesus was born in 6 BCE. That is another item the Pope agrees with in his book. Historians and archaeologists tell us it would not have been uncommon in a Roman raid for a soldier to rape one or several women.
I mentioned this a few years back at Christmas time, and a
number of you were shocked to say the least. Some of you
claimed to have relatives rolling over in their graves that you even
gave ear to such crude heresy, and I’m sure the theory could still
be unsettling for many of you. I’m just trying to talk some
Now if the soldier raped Mary, and she become pregnant
perhaps she never told Joseph what happened because she
didn’t want him to think she was used merchandise. When the
pregnancy became undeniable she had to have something to say
to her betrothed, her husband to be, and the great thing about
Joseph is that he loved Mary profoundly; as a result he believed
what she told him. So you can bet she and her family expressed
their heartfelt gratitude to Joseph over and over again for
believing the best of Mary instead of taking the route most men
would have taken, with full legal endorsement, and had their
fiancées stoned to death. Had Joseph not believed Mary, he
made up his mind that he would quietly annul the engagement
and betrothal and send her to live somewhere else where her
unfortunate plight would not be known.
We don’t know which story Joseph ultimately believed, but he could not separate himself from Mary and Jesus. In any case, he must still have had a few good moves in him because he and Mary had other children before he died leaving Mary a widow and
in the care of her firstborn, Jesus. Joseph was absolutely
convinced that God was behind all the good things. And, yes, he
thanked God in the manner his ancestors had thanked God such
as by singing with gusto Psalm 100.
Here’s a new version of that beloved psalm for modern folk,
from “Psalms for a New World” by Christine Robinson. She calls
her renderings improvisations on the psalms. To be more precise,
she calls her psalm summaries improvisations “…USING
INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE AND INCORPORATING THE MODERN
LENSES OF ECOLOGICAL AWARENESS, TAOIST
SENSIBILITIES, AND POST-MODERN THEOLOGY.” I like her
Be Joyful—everybody—Muslims, Christians, Pagans, Atheists. Gladly serve the good. Rejoice in the gift of life. Highest above, deepest within. Around us in nature, present in each. We are yours, You are ours. We enter your presence with thanksgiving. With chants and songs. With grateful hearts and open hands. And know a flash of eternity.
I close with a word about gifts from psychologist Robert
I have a suggestion for a gift — a gift that you can receive and
give at the same time. It’s called “gratitude.” What you can do
is think about the people that you love, the special people,
and contemplate why they matter to you. What would life be
like without your best friend, your partner, your mother or
father, your kids? Imagine that they no longer existed and
now you had a chance to get them back — but only if you
could prove that you really were grateful. What would you
miss about your best friend? Think about the conversations,
the memories, the laughter, and the tears — you both shared.
Now think about how grateful you are for having him or her
in your life. Now, tell them. I think back about my mother who died several years ago. I am forever grateful to her. She cared for me when I was a child, made me laugh, gave me confidence, kissed me and gave me the ability to love. I am grateful today. And always will be. I am grateful for people and things that are gone–but stay with me forever because I keep them in my gratitude. No one can ever take away my appreciation.