Israel is a word with a lot of meanings. Israel was the name Jacob, son of Isaac, was given after he wrestled with an angel (or with God) through one long dark night. Israel was the name of the kingdom over which David ruled but when Solomon’s son, Rehaboam, became king upon Solomon’s death, ten of the twelve tribes refused to acknowledge his sovereignty and created their own kingdom. The other two tribes, located in the south and around Jerusalem, became the kingdom of Judah. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the two kingdoms were united under Herod the Great but were split up by his sons after his death. When Jesus spoke about Israel, however, he spoke of the united Israel, the whole of the twelve tribes.
One of the choice parts in every Advent/Christmas pageant is the role of the innkeeper. Mary and Joseph usually get top billing, Gabriel has a big chunk of stage time but the innkeeper is the one who has the latitude of interpretation. We have words attributed to him in the Bible but we don’t know how he spoke those words. Was there a “No Vacancy” sign on the door when Joseph knocked? Was the innkeeper angry that Joseph obviously couldn’t read the sign? Was he frustrated because (a) he could get money for shoehorning two more people in his already crowded inn but just didn’t have the room to squeeze them in, or (b) was he sympathetic to the very pregnant woman and her worried husband? Probably it was a bit of both. Money was nothing to be sneezed at, so to speak, and lots of people have trouble turning away a hungry and pregnant cat even though they know there will be more cats to feed before long. At least the innkeeper in the story knew the visit would be temporary. I wonder if children stayed for free? I never really thought about it, but other families would have had to bring their children along, wouldn’t they? The innkeeper no doubt had his hands full and overflowing.
The definition of incarnation is that of a living being encompassing a divine nature or deity. It was an argument for centuries (and still isn’t quite settled in all corners of religion) whether Jesus was all human, all divine or both. Julius Caesar had proclaimed himself a god and his adopted son, Augustus, claimed to be the son of a god (Julius) and thus divine himself. So how could a baby born in a stable in a relatively insignificant part of an area of the vast Roman Empire come to be proclaimed as the incarnation of God? It took time, some miracles, a violent death and a most surprising resurrection from the dead plus a few centuries to get to that realization. For the innkeeper, it was just a pregnant woman giving birth in a stable. For the angels it was a signal for proclamation while for the shepherds it was an invitation to some of the poorest people to a momentous celebration. The magi it was an irresistible sign to follow and for Herod it was a threat. As for Caesar in his divinity in Rome? He wasn’t even aware of it for some time. For us, though, the incarnation of Jesus was the beginning of a new day of faith and a new way of believing.
Imagination plays a part in Advent. As kids we used to pour through catalogs, looking at all the toys and imagining the sight of a particular red-suited guy with a white beard and a bottomless pack putting them all under our family Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. During Advent there are numerous ballet companies putting on versions of Nutcracker, a ballet full of imagination and fantasy of dancing toys and vivid dreams but whose music was born of sorrow and despair. The music is familiar to just about everyone, whether or not they have seen the ballet or even know the story the ballet tells and many little girls have danced to its music, imagining themselves performing such lovely movements as real ballerinas. Imagination comes in the building of snowmen that might just come to life if the right headgear is found for them. And it comes when hearing the Advent readings and considering what it must have been like to be Mary at the annunciation, Joseph at the time he learned of Mary’s pregnancy, Elizabeth being pregnant in her elder years or even the angel Gabriel delivering the messages. Imagination is the soul looking for the beautiful, the wonderful, the unexplainable and finding a way for it to seem manifest even if made of gossamer. It’s looking into the heart of the flames of the Advent candles and seeing the image of a small baby in a manger who will come to be the light of the world.
And that light still shines—through Advent and beyond.