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Fake News and Real Values
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Christmas Even 2017
The Rev. Dr. Ted Cole, Jr.

Growing up in New York City, Christmas time was always special. There is a reason so many Christmas movies and television shows are set in New York.  When I see one, I feel very privileged that Christmas in New York is part of my childhood memories. I look forward to taking my two boys to New York during this season and sharing it with them when they are older.  But I have the means to share one of my strongest memories with them now, thanks to the wonders of On Demand cable television: the video Yule Log.

When I was growing up, in New York on Christmas Eve every year, WPIX Channel 11 broadcast for two full hours without commercial interruption the image of a fireplace burning brightly while played the music of the season, both secular and sacred.  When I was with my Mom on Christmas Eve, we were a “decorate your Christmas tree on Christmas eve” family.  We brought out and tested the strings of lights (with the large colorful bulbs, as Christmas lights should be), unpacked the ornaments and decorated the tree.  As we practiced this family tradition, the light of the Yule Log from the television screen glowed and Christmas music filled the room.  And once in a few years, we might have some hot chocolate to go along with it all.

It’s funny as I think back on it now how so much warmth could be generated by such a fake fire.   Yes, a fake fire.

Now New York City is a crowded overpopulated little island (yes, I was born in Manhattan so Manhattan is ‘the City’ and the rest is the Boroughs) with apartments piled one on top of another in buildings that reach to the sky. This is not a situation where every home can have a fireplace. So that fake Yule Log on WPIX on Christmas Eve was meeting a real need in our hearts and imaginations even though no logs were actually in our home, no fire was being tended, no smell of burning wood filled our living room. It makes me wonder about the power of things fake and things real.

For better and for worse, we live in a time when the question of the power of what is real and what is fake is being called.

The use of the pejorative “fake news” by those in power in our country is a break with the norms of our civic discourse.  To find our way in the midst of the uncertainty this break in norms generates, we need to ask what is real news and what is fake news.  Those in power seem to think that the fact that they say something makes it real news, makes it true and relevant and that when they label something as fake news, that makes it untrue and irrelevant.  But friends, saying something does not make it real and labeling something else fake does not make it untrue for us mere mortals, even if we are invested with the power of the presidency.  To know when things are fake and things are real requires investigation, study, understanding.  In the Christmas story, we have a fruitful example of this.

Here is the news of this Christmas night - Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem because the government is taking a census for the purposes of imposing a tax.  Mary is close to birthing Jesus, so the trip is very difficult.  They come to the town, and because so many others are there for the census, they find no room at the inn.  The only place they can find is a stable, and Jesus is born there among the animals.  Now what I am about to say I said last year, but still I do not want to shock anyone, so here goes - a significant part of this version of the Christmas story is actually fake news.

In this fake news version of the story, Mary and Joseph come to Bethlehem, a town where Joseph has distant relatives, but not one of them takes them in and they cannot purchase from an inn a place of rest where Mary can deliver Jesus into the world. All the inns are sold out, and no one is so moved by their plight to offer their place up to them.  The help they receive is the minimal kind - “here, take this unwanted space not good enough for regular people and make due with it.”  In this fake news version of the story, there is no kindness, no generosity, no gratitude at the coming of the Christ child into the world.

This fake news version of the story arose in the west because of a mistranslation of a word.  We can see this with a little investigation.  In New Testament Greek, when Mary and Joseph come to Bethlehem there is no room in the “kataluma” which is better rendered in English as “guestroom” or “upper room.”  This word turns up in the Last Supper narrative, where Jesus and the disciples celebrate the Passover on that fateful night before the Crucifixion in the “kataluma,” the “upper room.”  

When Luke relates Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, he writes of a public inn where the kind and generous Samaritan leaves the beaten man in the care of the innkeeper (found in Luke 10).  This inn in Greek is a “pandocheion,” not a “kataluma.”  So back there in Bethlehem in Luke 2, it is not a “pandocheion,” a public inn that Mary and Joseph are excluded from but the guestroom or “prophet’s room” that was a part of a typical home in first century Palestine.

Further, homes in first century Palestine typically consisted of three tiers - the guestroom or prophet’s room up top, the family’s main living area in the middle, and on a lower level, the place where animals would be brought in for the night.  This lower level included a feedbox or manger built into the structure.  So when Mary swaddles Jesus and lays him in the manger, she does so in the hospitality of a crowded home, not cast out in the unwanted space of a public inn’s stable.  Family was around Mary, Joseph and Jesus, comforting them, supporting them, celebrating with them, practicing the ancient and holy art of kindness, generosity and gratitude.  That is the real news of Christmas.

Friends, the things that are real are the things that abide, the values that have been the hallmark of God’s love for us across the centuries, values that mark our faithful response to God’s love - kindness, generosity and gratitude.  When we practice kindness, generosity and gratitude, we rejoice in the truth; we do not go around declaring the things we do not like or the things we disagree with as fake.  When we practice kindness, generosity and gratitude, we have a humility about ourselves that is gracious and welcoming.  When we practice kindness, generosity and gratitude, we are eternally beside Jesus in that manger with Mary and Joseph in the home that welcomed them, and we are blessed by the light of Christ that breaks into our hearts and lives and sets us alight with the love of God.

On Christmas morning, as Sage and I and our boys Theo and Zach  wake up and share the joy of the day in our home, I will put on our television an On-Demand Yule Log with some Christmas music to fill our living room.  I suspect my boys will not pay it much mind, but if they ask (well, if Zachary asks, it will be Christmas miracle because he is only one year old!) I will tell them about my growing up in New York City and what this video Yule Log means to me.  Even though it will be fake fire, it will feel very good to share this tradition anew with my children as my Mom shared it with me.  But the warmth and light Sage and I will most be tending is the love that God has for us in Christ, a love that has the power to bring warmth and light into our souls, our homes, our communities and our world.  With Sage, I will strive to tend kindness, generosity and gratitude in Zach and Theo’s hearts and souls, as well as in our own.  That holy warmth and light is not fake in any way at all.  It is the most real thing there is.  May you find and tend the warmth and light of Christ in your heart and your home and your life all year round.  And Merry Christmas!