Advent Devotional: “Honor, Shame, and the First Christmas”

Cameron D. Armstrong (PhD, Biola University) serves with the International Mission Board in Bucharest, Romania. He is part of the Theological Education team and teaches at the Bucharest Baptist Theological Institute. Cameron and his wife, Jessica, have two children.

One way to keep the fires aglow this Christmas is to consider the Christmas story in fresh ways. These character-centric devotionals look at secondary characters of the Christmas story through the “non-Western” value system of honor and shame.

In this short devotional of five parts, I take up the theme of honor and shame in the birth of Jesus Christ. Instead of writing abstractly, I have chosen what a former professor of mine calls “character theology.” My desire is to honor Christ by digging deeper into some of the surrounding characters of the story. Yet they are not principal characters. These characters do not appear in any Bible verse. None of them are given any lines to speak in either Matthew or Luke’s Gospel. I write them in the form of journal entries. The characters reflect on the scene before them, attempting to make sense of these events. In doing so, I hope we can all do the same.

Although shame clearly surrounded the events of the First Christmas, God was also clearly doing things to transform shame into honor. Jerome Neyrey’s Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (pp. 97–101) highlights how the Gospel writers carefully noted that (1) Jesus came from honorable lineage, being a direct descendant of King David, (2) Joseph and Mary were considered by God to be virtuous, (3) no less than five divinely given dreams (three to Joseph, one to Mary, and one to the Wise Men) affirm Jesus’ unique divinity, (4) “celestial phenomena” occur in the skies in the form of a star and the angelic host, and (5) Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah’s coming were finally being fulfilled.

Mother of Mary

Read: Luke 1:26-38

 Dear Journal,

            Another confusing day today. I never dreamed I’d be explaining the trimester cycle of pregnancy to Mary. At least not now. My daughter is younger by far than even my second cousin, Miriam, was when she got pregnant. We all know how that turned out. Was it one or two months she had to stay with us because her father couldn’t bear to look at her? I think it was two months. I haven’t seen her since.

            Mary insists that Jehovah has a special plan for her and her child. How am I supposed to tell that to my friends at the well tomorrow morning? Every day they make some sort of comment about how I failed as a mom. I am sure they are right. I know my husband thinks so, too. I know that is why he has become so dismissive of me. Our home has become so quiet.

            The funny thing is that, when I look at Mary, when she is by herself, she seems overjoyed. I can’t understand it. It is like she keeps reliving the dream she had a few months ago.  Back when our lives were normal. Back when I had friends in this town.

            Joseph is an honorable man. One of the most honorable in all Nazareth. Far too good for my sinful daughter. If I were him, I’d be thinking about divorce.

            Time to go. There is washing that needs to be done. Jehovah knows, Mary is too weak to help me.

Moses, a neighbor in Nazareth

 Read: Luke 1:39-56

 Dear Journal,

            My childhood friend, Joseph, came by this morning. Even though we live only a couple of streets apart here in Nazareth, I hardly ever see him anymore. Not really. He mostly stays in his family’s workshop, and I have my animals to look after.

            I remember one time in school sitting next to Joseph. We must have been six or seven. He memorized the Shema faster than everyone else. The teacher honored him for it, but Joseph just shrugged it off. Then he helped me memorize it.

            I was just finishing feeding my donkeys when Joseph knocked and asked to use one for his trip to Bethlehem. “That’s a long way,” I said, unhitching one of my sturdier donkeys. “But I suppose there is no getting around it. I guess a lot of people will be traveling for the Roman census.”

            There was no use asking how long Joseph would be gone. Nobody knows. I did ask why he wanted a donkey, though. He said it was for his new wife. That made me hesitate for a minute, knowing that Joseph’s pregnant wife, carrying a baby that’s not his, would be sitting on my donkey. “Please” was all Joseph said.

            After Joseph left, my wife came in to tell me it was lunchtime. I didn’t tell her what had happened.

James, Joseph’s cousin in Bethlehem

 Read: Matthew 1:18-24

 Dear Journal,

            I cannot believe the shame our family endured today! After arriving yesterday at my aunt’s house, my family and I decided to make the best of our forced family reunion here in Bethlehem. The Roman soldiers along the road stared at us like we were their cattle or something. I’m pretty sure my oldest son saw me stick my tongue out after we passed a centurion just outside Jerusalem.

            Anyway, after a fairly restful night, my wife helped my aunt make breakfast. As we were finishing, though, I heard my cousin, Joseph’s, voice outside the door, asking to come in. My uncle and I answered the door, but I managed to shut it before my small kids could see who it was.

            Joseph and his childlike bride, Mary, stood shivering quietly. They had obviously traveled all night to make it in time for the census. My uncle just shook his head. What a softie! As Joseph helped Mary back on the donkey, I let him have it. “Do you understand the kind of shame you’ve brought on all of us? Don’t you know you can divorce this Jezebel? I don’t need to tell you that our family honor is at stake here!”

            Joseph’s always been a quiet guy, and always honest. That’s why I was so surprised when he told us that an angel had told him the child inside Mary was the Promised Messiah. I’ve never known him to lie before. But that story was too much for me! Rather than risk arguing more in the street, my uncle and I just closed the door. Maybe Joseph will come to his senses soon. Although, if he came all the way here with the girl, I’m not sure.

Reuben, an Innkeeper

 Read: Luke 2:1-7

 Dear Journal,

            Just returned from the stable out back. I tried to make it as warm as I could. I didn’t tell my wife who the extra blankets were for.

            About an hour or two ago, a young couple appeared at my door asking for a room. “You’re too late,” I said, “We’re all full tonight. Census time, you know.” The girl looked like she was going to cry. When she silently stroked her belly, hidden up to that point by a large woolen cloak, that’s when I knew. What could I possibly do? My wife and sons were already asleep, so they couldn’t share our room. Especially not if the girl was that far along. Besides, everyone will know tomorrow what happened, anyway. It’s hard to hide that turning away a seriously pregnant woman.

            My wife was about her age when she gave birth to our firstborn. “All I have is a stable.” The girl’s eyes met mine. “Follow me,” I said. 

            I don’t know what I’ll say to my wife and sons when they hear the girl’s cries if she gives birth tonight. What kind of a person is born in a stable. 

David, a shepherd

 Read: Luke 2:8-20

 Dear Journal,

            My flock wandered over to the east of Bethlehem this afternoon. I guess I shouldn’t say “my flock,” since the sheep actually belong to someone else. They pretty much are mine, I guess, since I’ve seen all of them grow up from when they were newborn lambs. Anyway, the “sheep I tend” wandered over to the east of Bethlehem.

I usually don’t mind when they want to go closer to another flock, provided the other flock’s shepherds are close by and can identify their sheep from mine. I think it was the singing that got my sheep’s attention, as funny as that sounds.

When the other shepherds came in view, I whistled them over so we could exchange news. It’s usually nice to talk to another human (besides my dad and brother, who shepherd this flock with me). These guys, though, were different.

The first shepherd wouldn’t even let me share my news first, which is, of course, customary for the shepherd who initiates the conversation. Instead, he blurts out, “You will not believe what happened to us last night!” Then he starts talking about angels lighting up the night sky like it’s midday, singing about giving God glory.

“It was crazy terrifying at first,” added a second guy. “But they told us to go Bethlehem and we’d see the newborn Messiah in the manger of a stable. So, we dropped everything and rushed off.”

“Wait, you just left the sheep and everything?” my brother interjected. “And you went where? To a manger?” The shepherds nodded.

Until that point, the oldest of the three shepherds had not said a word. Then he spoke. “It was just as the angels said.” The old shepherd had a distant look. I knew he was replaying the whole thing in his mind. Was that a tear I saw in his eye?

“He’s here,” whispered the old shepherd, almost to himself. “The Messiah. I saw him!”

So, here I am. Under the same night sky that evidently shone last night with angelic light. If this is true, I want to see the Messiah, too!

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5 Comments on “Advent Devotional: “Honor, Shame, and the First Christmas”

  1. These are well-written, helpful, carefully thought through stories. Kenneth Bailey would nuance the stable though. In his “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” (pp. 25-37) he argues that Jesus was born in the home of relatives in Bethlehem (thereby honoring them), but in the lower part of the house where the animals were, since there was no room in the upper guest room.

  2. Brilliant! With slight editing I used it this morning with a group that meets weekly to pray for their Muslim friends and neighbours. It ushered in a powerful time of prayer for them… and for us as we semtimentalise the story and forget the scandal.

  3. I really like this approach. I also sense that you have caught the essence of how the people you have identified might have felt/thought. It is valuable to not “over-spiritualize” God’s entry into humanity — you didn’t. Often we fail to understand the difficulty that people have understanding what God has done in giving His Son. In a honor/shame culture it must be much more negative to ‘violate’ the cultural norms. Well-done!

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