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 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.