Most of us have seen the Folger’s Coffee ad on television. A young man with an armful of packages gets out of a car and lets himself into the front door of a house. When he touches the light switch, the lights go on, on an enormous Christmas tree.
A little girl upstairs who heard the car door close races down the steps and into his arms. Everybody’s asleep, she says. He says he knows a way to wake them up. They go into the kitchen. He gets out the big can of Folger’s coffee. By the time he has brewed a potful and is sipping from his cup, all the grown-ups upstairs have smelled it and are beginning to come down. The young man’s mother sees him, and they rush into each other’s arms.
“Peter,” she says. “Oh, you’re home!”
Home for Christmas.
What is it about Christmas that makes us all want to be home with our families? I heard some folks talking about it. One woman said she had seen an article about a survey. The survey found that Christmas is the one time of year when most people want to be home. It leads birthdays by three to one and the Fourth of July by almost five to one.
Has it ever struck you as ironic, in the face of this, that the holiday we want to spend at home was built around a man and woman who had a Child away from home? And, in some ways, the Child in this case was even more away from home than His parents, because He had left the glory of the heavenly world to be born in a mere stable in Bethlehem.
But I have a friend who may have thrown some new light on this matter. He is Kenneth E. Bailey, a Middle Eastern expert who resides at the Ecumenical Center for Biblical Studies in Tantur, only a few miles outside modern-day Bethlehem. In an article published in The Presbyterian Outlook (Jan. 4-11, 1988, pp. 8-9), Bailey reinterprets the narrative of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of one who has spent most of his life in the Middle East.
He notes that in Luke 2:7, which says there was “no room in the inn,” the Greek word for “inn” is actually kataluma, which means “guest room” and does not imply a hostelry. Later, in the story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan takes the wounded man to a pandokheion, which does mean “inn” or “hostelry.” If Luke had meant to say “inn” in the birth narrative, he would have used pandokheion, not kataluma.
What we Westerners need to understand, said Bailey, is the arrangement of a typical Middle Eastern house. In such a house, the living room often doubles as a guest room; if there are overnight visitors, they sleep in this room. Adjacent to this room, but at a slightly lower level — as in a split-level house — is a rough, outer room into which the family’s animals are usually brought at night, especially during colder weather. In the morning they are led away and the room is swept. Another feature of the Middle Eastern home is that the manger for the animals is built into the floor of the upper level, or living-room level, so that the animals can reach it but cannot walk in it.
A Middle Easterner reading the Gospel story, said Bailey, would immediately recognize its events this way. Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, where they were among numerous relatives. We are told that Mary had just visited her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist; and Joseph, who was “of the house and lineage of David,” would have had many kinsfolk in the region.
It would have been unthinkable for them to stay in a public inn. Instead, they sought out the home of relatives. But there were other relatives there as well, so that there was no room in the guest room (kataluma) and they had to sleep in the lower, outer room, the one into which animals were often brought at night. When Jesus was born, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes (a Middle Eastern tradition) and laid in the manger, where all the folks in the living room could admire him too.
Thus Jesus was not born into the cold, forbidding atmosphere usually depicted by our Western understanding of the text, but among extended family members gathered in Bethlehem for the same reason Joseph was there. The Savior of the world was born in the midst of a loving, doting family, among aunts and uncles and cousins known to His parents and loved by them.
In other words, Jesus Himself came home at Christmas. He was born in a real home, in the bosom of a large family. This was real incarnation, to be born as other Middle Eastern children were born, and are often born to this day.
Why does it matter anyway? Why do we always associate Christmas with home?
I suppose it has to do with tradition, doesn’t it — with a sense of belonging and happiness we have all experienced at Christmastime. Many of our best memories are built around being home at Christmas. We remember the beauty of those childhood Christmas trees, decked in lights and covered with icicles — the magical packages under the tree — the smell of gingerbread in the air — the music from a favorite recording — the neighborhood Santa Claus — the sense of secrecy and excitement as the great day drew near — maybe a deep snow on Christmas eve — the wonderful feeling of love and sharing, when even the gruffest and most irritable members of the family seemed to grow soft and tender. Christmas and home just seem naturally to go together.
But there is something more than this. It has to do with a deeper sense of home that we feel at Christmastime — a sense of cosmic belonging — as if, at this special time of the year, we come closer to eternity than at any other time. We remember Augustine’s famous prayer, “Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
At Christmas, the veil between this life and the other seems thinnest, as if we could simply step from one side to the other. Bethlehem is the doorway, and we sometimes fancy we can hear the angel choirs a little beyond.
The German poet Holderin, one of the contemporary existentialists, has written of the essential “homelessness” of all of us — our inability ever to feel completely at home in this world. There is always a longing, a yearning for something more, for something beyond, for a life we can suspect but cannot touch.
It is this homelessness that haunts the works of our greatest writers, musicians, and artists. They know that humanity is not the measure of everything, that there is a mystery beyond us, impinging on our lives but never satisfying us in this life. It lures us, draws us, teases and torments us, until at last we give up the ghost and embrace it fully.
The Christmas story is the story of God’s having contacted us from beyond, of our having heard from home. This is what the excitement was all about — what it is still about. In the baby born at Bethlehem, God has gotten in touch with us, has assured us of the life beyond, has said, “Here is my gift of love. You have a home with me.”
Jesus Himself would say it later: “In my Father’s house are many rooms…. I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am you may also be” (John 14:2-3). At Christmas, we should all feel at home — should know that we have a home — that whatever happens to us in this world, even if we are homeless, we have a home forever with Christ in God.
Maybe this is why Christmas is such a wonderful time of the year to rethink our lives and redirect them toward our eternal home. Feeling the assurance of God’s presence with us, and the sense of what Christmas is all about, we are encouraged to make a new start toward the values we have always believed in, toward being the persons we always wanted to be.
Our sense of forgiveness and acceptance is strong at Christmastime. Even Ebenezer Scrooge could be forgiven for his cold, inhuman ways, and could totally reorient his life toward warmth and caring and living. We know we can too. All we have to do is decide to come home to God — to surrender our hearts and lives to Him with fresh commitment.
Gary Libman wrote a story in the Los Angeles Times called “A Mother’s Search for Russell Love” (Nov. 16, 1988, V, 1-2). The mother was a woman named Beverly Elliott. She lives in Houston. She had not seen her son, Russell Love, for four years, and not heard from him in two years, but she knew he was homeless somewhere in Los Angeles County. She talked to the FBI and the L.A. Police Department, but they told her they couldn’t help.
Longing to get in touch with her son, Mrs. Elliott ran a personals ad in the Times for twelve days in October. It said: “RUSSELL L. LOVE — From Houston or anyone knowing where he lives please call his mother collect 713-447-5968. Russell, your mother will never forget you. She loves you!” Maybe someone would see the ad, she thought, and get in touch with her.
Someone did.
A man named Ralph Campbell, who had spent 25 years living on the street, had given some extra sandwiches to a friend. The friend had turned to another friend and said, “Russ, do you want a sandwich?” Campbell phoned the newspaper. He led a reporter to some shipping containers in a parking lot on Western Avenue. There were some bedrolls there. He thought this was where Russell Love might be sleeping.
Next morning, the reporter returned. A young, blond-headed man was asleep, rolled up in a bright yellow blanket. When he finally awoke, he lay there and smoked a cigarette. The reporter asked if he was Russell Love. He said he was.
“Your mother wants you to call her,” said the reporter. He gave Russell the ad. Russell rolled up his bedroll and walked off down Western Avenue, the paper with the ad under his arm.
Russell called home on a Friday. His mother told him how much she missed him. They talked three times between Friday and Monday. She said she would send him some money. When she got paid at the end of the month, she would send him some tickets to fly home for Christmas. The money arrived. Russell had to call home to get some identification papers to cash the check.
“I’m going to see that he gets all the ID necessary to get a job,” said his mother. “I’m going to try to make it possible for him to rethink his decision and come back into the world he came from and to make a better decision.”
That’s what Christmas is really about, isn’t it? It’s about being contacted from home and given a chance to make some better decisions about our lives. God has reached out to us and said, “I love you, and I’m looking forward to your coming home.”
Now it’s up to us to respond — to say, “I’m glad God has got in touch with me, and I do want to go home. I’m going to make some important changes in my life and my thinking, and from now on I’m going to have Him in mind in everything I do. Then I’ll really be home for Christmas!”
Russell Love did go home. A follow-up article showed a picture of him and his mother together. It told about all the catching-up the family had done since his return, and about the way they “grabbed each other and hugged and hugged” when he showed up.
“It feels great to be home,” the article quoted Love as saying. “It’s nice to be a family again after being a traveler.”
You can draw your own moral from that.

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