Context is everything. In the real world of my daily hikes, the objects in this artwork are pieces of trash that I’ve found lying near the path that I walk. Put together with a fresh eye to shape and color, they become instead a nativity scene. I live in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a place known for its healing waters to the native peoples who once roamed these lands and now known as our nation’s first National Park. We have two large hospitals, a rarity for a town of only 35,500 people, but we also serve outlying rural counties. If you want healing, this is the place to come, for we have spas, bathhouses, great food, a beautiful lake and mountains.
The local YMCA is just down the road from the Mercy Hospital campus. If I leave the Y, I can get a 1.5 mile hike with varying grades and enough level spots to recover my wind and get the whole done in about 30 minutes. I’ve about trained the courtesy cart lady to wave at me and pass me by. At first I think I struggled enough that she would stop to offer me a lift.
When we speak about context in a work of art or context in a biblical verse, we mean that we need to look at the surroundings. The surroundings in an art work include the artist’s life experiences, as well as the image they were viewing. We artists pour the sum of who we are into the whole of the world as we see it.
Likewise with the biblical context, we ask: what was the writer’s intent, what do we know of his life experience, what seems to be his goal in writing as he does, what does his choice of words or images suggest, why are some stories unique and not repeated by other writers, and to what do the stories before and immediately after point?
In the New Testament, Luke is the only writer to mention that the birth of Jesus took place outside of an established lodging place. He uses the Greek word Kataluma, which means “lodging, inn, or guest room,” depending on the context. He is also the only one to mention the parable of the Good Samaritan. Healing takes place for the victim of bandits at the inn and for the whole world at the no room inn.
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” –Luke 2:7
“He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him” –Luke 10:34
The No Room Inn Nativity has the standard imagery of the Holy Family: Joseph is the tall, blue, flattened paint can with the radiator head; Mary is is the crushed coca-cola can with the tin can head and screws for eyes; the angel on the left is a rain washed McDonald’s French fry container with a tin can lid for a head; and the baby Jesus is an orange plastic cross/halo resting in a VIP parking ticket from a NASCAR race I attended in November. Alone, these are just pieces of trash, but together on a gold background, this collage becomes an icon worthy of reminding us that the King of this world began his life in a No Room Inn.
This Jesus who came to heal the rift between God and humanity, began his human life on the outside. Those of us who feel like we aren’t meant for the inside need to realize that Jesus spent his whole life on the margins, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and casting out demons, while at the same time afflicting the comfortable insiders who came for the show. Context is everything. Take your ministry out into the streets, find the broken bits of “trash” that have the potential to become new. Begin a healing ministry, not for those inside your comfortable inn, but for those who are told, “No room!”