The Rev. Peter Faass
No matter how many times I hear the familiar Luke’s Nativity story, it still gives me goosebumps. I will confess though that Linus’s rendition in A Charlie Brown Christmas is my favorite. The purity of Linus’s young heart and his honest, straight forward delivery, not only brings goosebumps, but tears. It is exquisite.
But sometimes the familiarity of this story causes us to overlook some details that should give us pause and to ask some serious theological questions. For me, as I read this scripture for the umpteenth time, the question that popped out at me is this: Why was there no room at the inn – or presumably anywhere else - for Joseph and Mary, in Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem?
The commonly held belief is that the town was full-up with people coming home due to the census, decreed by the Emperor Augustus. And Mary and Joseph, traveling slowly due to her advanced pregnancy, arrived in Bethlehem too late to find any accommodations. Taken at face value that seems reasonable. But on closer reflection, it isn’t.
One of the foundation ethical values of middle eastern cultures is to show hospitality to the stranger. This requirement of hospitality demands providing shelter, safety, and food to those who show up at your door, regardless of the cost; whether that be a financial or an ethical cost.
Jesus’ parables frequently speak of this type of hospitality. Think of the Good Samaritan, the Great Banquet, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the man in bed when a friend knocks at his door at midnight. All are about providing radical hospitality.
When Jesus sends his disciples out two by two, he tells them, “But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.” (Luke 10:10-12.) Jesus’ marching orders to the disciples are about the hospitality the disciples should expect when they travel . . . and their response when it is not offered them.
With this understanding, it begs the question: in a society that valued hospitality, it is – to say the least - peculiar that there would be no room either at the inn for Joseph and Mary, or with his extended family in Bethlehem. And that is worth pondering as it violates that bedrock ethical value.
Why is the Holy Family not accommodated in some way, especially under the circumstances of Mary’s advanced pregnancy?
Had the townsfolk heard rumors of Mary’s premarital pregnancy, and not wanted to be considered a party to her circumstances? It’s possible. People in the huge caravans traversing the main routes of Palestine would have learned that she was engaged, but not married. They would have heard her story of the Archangel Gabriel telling Mary that it was the Holy Spirit that would impregnate her. Most likely that news would have been met with disbelief, rolling eyes, and more than a few snickers. People in the ancient world would have gossiped about this, just as we would. And as less burdened travelers reached Bethlehem before Mary and Joseph, they would have told their juicy gossip to the townsfolk. And all the old prejudices and hatreds would have kicked in. We can imagine it, right?
“Oh, the Holy Spirit did this. Well, that’s a new one!”
“That Joseph is a fool to stay with her. Doesn’t he know he’s been cuckolded?”
“What a tramp she is. And really, getting pregnant when she’s already engaged. I wonder who the real father is?”
“How dare they sully the family name and come here. What an embarrassment!”
I suspect that the residents of Bethlehem were well-aware of what Joseph and Mary were all about, and that it was their disdain that caused them to hang “No Vacancy” signs in their hearts, as the Holy Family came knocking.
Yet, I will also speculate that as the innkeeper said, “we’re full up” to the anxious Mary and Joseph at his door, that the look of desperation on their faces pierced his hard heart, - that he had a moment of compassion - which caused him to say, “Well, there is the stable out back. You can stay there.”
Now the donkey heard this he probably thought, “Ca-ching! A five-star hotel!” as he relished the hay, the trough of water, the warmth and the companionship of other animals.
But for a pregnant woman about to deliver, and her weary spouse-to-be, it was hardly ideal. Yet the bigotry of the people prevented anything better, even if that meant violating the critical cultural tenant of hospitality. No un-wed, pregnant woman and her foolish fiance, were sleeping in a warm bed under anyone’s roof that night. After all, what would the neighbors say?
But God was not to be denied that night. God breaks in, regardless of our bigotry.
God’s breaking in is what caused the innkeeper to relent and provide shelter in the stable to Mary and Joseph. God broke into his hard heart. Even if just a little. And like the innkeeper’s, God will break into all our hard hearts, as well. God will heal the sin-sickness of our broken lives. It is God’s purpose. It is why God gave us Jesus.
In the Magnificat Mary sang: “The lowly will be lifted up.” That is how God incarnates God’s purpose: Lifting up the lowly and bringing low the proud in their conceit. This is the clarion message in Luke. The mighty and proud are brought down from their prejudices and hatreds, and the lowly are given their rightful dignity.
What is our hospitality to the lowly, in all the various iterations we can perceive people to be lowly, like? Do we make room for them in the inn of our lives; find a place for them at our tables? What person in our relationships, this very holy night, are we denying hospitality and dignity too because we hold deeply held prejudices against them? So our prejudices compel us to gossip and rumor-monger. When God works to break in to our conscience, do we do the right thing, or do we parse our response because we fear what the neighbors will say?
The experience of the Holy Family that first Christmas in Bethlehem tells us that God looks after the lowly, the vulnerable, the despised. And the witness of the innkeeper tells us that God will break into our hardened hearts, and will not relent doing so until every heart not only fully welcomes Jesus, but loves and follows him as well.
The Incarnation of God in the babe of Bethlehem witnesses to the profound truth that God will not be denied. By no one, or by anything. The mighty, the arrogant, the hateful will all be brought low, and the lowly, the downtrodden, the burdened, and the despised will be lifted up. In so doing God breaks in. And Jesus the Savior is born.
Oh, holy night! The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices
Oh, night divine
Oh, night when Christ was born
Oh, night divine.
Oh, night. Oh holy night divine.
The Rev. Peter Faass
I recently read a commentary on the classic holiday television program, Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, that referred to Rudolf as the “savior figure” in the story. That piqued my interest. I don’t normally think of reindeer as having savior potential. But on reflection Rudolf clearly is the savior in the story. It certainly isn’t Santa who’s about as prejudiced as they come when he rejects Rudolf due to his shiny nose. And it’s not the reindeer flying coach who tells Rudolf’s friends to reject him because he’s different; which they do enthusiastically. It isn’t Donner, Rudolf’s father, who is so humiliated by his son’s difference he tries to make him into something he’s not.
Such is the level of prejudice and mockery Rudolf experiences it compels him to flee the North Pole. During his journey he discovers his self-worth, as he is befriended by others who have also been rejected for who they are. They become a band of mis-fits. In their travels they land on the Island of Misfit Toys; a place for toys considered not suitable gifts - like a Charlie in the Box, or a choo-choo train with square wheels - because they too are different, Rudolf commits to try and get Santa to see the misfit toys worthy of being gifts and loved by some girl or boy. When he goes back to the North Pole a terrible blizzard occurs; it so bad it compels Santa to cancel Christmas. But then Rudolf saves the day as he guides Santa’s sleigh through the blizzard with his glowing red nose, and he saves Christmas. But this is not his real savior role. He is the true savior figure in the show because he saves the misfit toys from their lack of self-worth and loneliness, and maybe most importantly, he saves the bigoted souls of those who initially hated him, including Santa Claus. Rudolf is clearly a savior figure. But he’s not the Savior.
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear the glorious Magnificat, that song of God’s redemptive love that Mary proclaims after the Annunciation. She sings:
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
In that phrase, Mary makes a profound theological statement: God is our Savior. No one or nothing else is our Savior, that role belongs to God alone. To confess God as Savior means we will not look to some other power for salvation from the chaos of the world. Not to money, not to politicians or religious leaders, not to technology, not to gaining material possessions, or social progress, or education, not to the legislative process. Not even to Rudolf. None of these will deliver us, in and of themselves, from leading meaningless lives, or amoral secularism, or ignoring our Baptismal Covenant, and other forms of degradation rampant in our society.
To turn to any of these as being our savior is to engage in idolatry; which is one of the most egregious sins in the Bible. Now God, our true savior, may USE any of these items or processes – like God did Rudolf - to help achieve God’s reign, but the ultimate basis of our trust, hope and commitment should be clear: God is our Savior.
Proclaiming God as Savior is evidence of our authentic need of One greater than ourselves or our idols. It reminds us there is nothing we can do to obtain our salvation. That is God’s alone give.
We Christians call Jesus savior. But the truth is the term applies to God who we come to know more fully through Jesus. All that Jesus does in the Gospels to affect our salvation – calling for repentance, forgiving sinners, healing the sick, casting out demons, eating with outcasts, and dying a redemptive death – he does according to God’s purpose and intent. In Jesus the role and intent of God as Savior is made transparent.
Mary, proclaiming God as Savior is another of Luke’s counter-cultural statements. In that time idolatry and pagan worship were common. Romans were big practitioners of idolatry. And the Jews were always lured to it. It was a constant temptation that turned them away from God as their Savior, and to which the prophets consistently railed against. Mary’s statement stands in opposition to that idolatry.
We too are lured by idolatrous things. Money, possessions, status, power, class, education, our bigotries and prejudices. All these seductively try to convince us they can save us. Michael Cohen was clearly seduced by the allure of the false saviors of money, power and access to beautiful women that surrounded his client. That was idolatry that came to a bad end; as does all idolatry.
Whenever we believe that our idols have the power to save us, we stop practicing the authentic ways of salvation made transparent in Jesus. We stop following Jesus. And we effectively deny that God is our Savior.
Because it’s Christmas time, let me address a particular idolatry of the season: The alleged war on Christmas. This supposed war is promoted by those who believe that this holiday is under assault by the forces of the anti-Christ. They insist on only saying Merry Christmas as being acceptable, not Happy Holidays or Seasons Greetings. They demand creche’s be displayed on public property, while denying other people’s religious symbols to be there. They demand that coffee cups be red and green with stars, evergreen trees, and reindeer emblazoned on them. To them doing these things is somehow salvific, indicative of authentic Christian belief and behavior. They are not. They are idolatry. People who believe these things stop practicing the ways of Christmas revealed to us in the Christ-child. They forget, or even deny that God, and God alone, is Savior.
The idolatrous alleged war on Christmas is a distraction, preventing us from fighting the real war on Christmas. The real war on Christmas can be seen in our treatment of all those Jose's, Maria's and Jesuses on our borders, fleeing certain starvation, or death from gang violence in their homelands. They are the Holy Families of our time. Denying them safety, warmth, food, shelter, and love is a war on Christmas. Ripping children from their mothers’ arms and caging them is a war on Christmas. Sending thousands of troops to our border with Mexico – stationing them away from family and friends during the holidays – for purely political reasons, is a war on Christmas. These practices show that we are the Herod’s of our day; murderous idolaters who deny God’s ways of salvation. They are the real war on Christmas.
The antidote to this war and all the idolatries of our lives is the child of Bethlehem, whose birth we are on the portal of celebrating. In him God has revealed God’s self as the only true Savior. As we prepare our hearts to receive that babe of Bethlehem once again, let our song be Mary’s song. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
And then let that truth be incarnated in our hearts, minds and souls. Only then will we know the true meaning of Christmas and the incomparable gift of our salvation.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.