SJF • Christmas Eve 2006It is one of the most disconcerting and unpleasant experiences one can possibly have — to reach the end of a long trip, get to the hotel, and discover that your reservation has been released to someone else, and to be told that there is no room available. It appears over-booking has been around just as long as the hotel business, a lot longer than the airlines, and it looks like the innkeepers in Bethlehem were no more generous than many others before or since. They lived in the world of first come, first served, and their No Vacancy signs must have been written in letters of Greek, and Hebrew, and Latin.
And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. +
So when Joseph and the very pregnant Mary — I miss that old expression “great with child” — when the weary couple arrived at the inn that night in Bethlehem, they were told there was no room for them in the inn. And so they spent the night out behind the inn, in the stable, so tradition (not the Bible) tells us — though it’s the logical place to find a manger, out in the stable with the animals that fed from it.
There was no room for Mary and Joseph and the newborn Jesus in the inn. Well who was there room for? Who was the inn crowd that cold winter night so long ago?
We have to admit that just as the Bible doesn’t specifically mention the stable, only the manger, so too the Bible tells us nothing at all about the inn or its inhabitants, only that there was no room there. You can look as long as you like, but you won’t find any further details. All it says about the inn is that there was no place for Joseph and Mary, no place for her to bear her child, no crib for him to lie in — only the manger for which tradition supplies us with a likely stable as a setting. Even the innkeeper who features so prominently in many a Christmas pageant isn’t mentioned by the Bible. He is a logical addition to the story, but as far as the Gospel is concerned he isn’t even an off-stage voice.
So, again as far as the Gospel is concerned, the people who were in the inn that winter night so long ago, all of them, whoever they were, the whole inn crowd, have been utterly forgotten, utterly lost to history, their names wiped out, the memory of them perished, all evidence of them gone, as if they never were. The inn crowd, you see, missed their chance to be remembered for ever, they missed their chance to have their names appear in the Bible along with Augustus and Quirinius, along with Jesus and Mary and Joseph.
Who were they? Well, use your imagination — another kind of Christmas gift God gives us. Who might the people in the inn have been, besides the logically necessary innkeeper. The rich couple who might have told the innkeeper, “Oh, we can make some room in a corner here — why not put some of our luggage out in the stable and let this poor couple have a corner of our room”? No — they are forgotten.
Perhaps there was another carpenter or craftsman there that night, someone who would recognize Joseph by his calloused hands. He could have taken that hand in fellowship, and squeezed in a bit on his narrow bed, or slept on the floor. But no — he has faded into mist.
Then remember, too, that the reason Joseph was on this journey was to enroll in the census, here in the town of his heritage — the town must have been full of his relations: so perhaps someone in the inn that night was a cousin, or even an uncle, someone who might do a favor for “family.” But no, in this case, blood was not thicker than water, when the well of charity itself ran dry — and if a relative was there, he or she is now forgotten.
And that innkeeper himself, so busy with his work that he couldn’t find the time to maybe offer a cot in his own room or in the corner of the bar — he is only remembered to us as an inhabitant of our imagination and our Christmas pageants, even the job title “innkeeper” is absent from the recorded text.
The innkeeper kept his inn, all right, kept it for himself and those inside it, all of them anonymous guests of an anonymous host. And all of them are forgotten. There was room for them in the inn, but no room for them in the story. And the story is important — for who of us when he or she dies is remembered any other way than by the passing down of the story of our lives? Without the story, the inn crowd is lost and gone forever.
But what about the “out” crowd? Ah, now that’s a different story. And it is a story. That’s the point. It is a story told around the world in every human tongue. It is a story told each year as the world turns under a winter moon, a story that has been told and will be told again and again until our old world stops its turning once and for all. For as long as there are children to sing, and parents to teach, and watchers to watch, and preachers to proclaim, the story of the “out” crowd will be told.
And we will adorn our altars and table-tops with crêches that commemorate that stable, and there won’t be an inn in sight. And the figures of the shepherds and the wise men and the angels will be there too, remembered in our story and song, and in our pictures and our pageants and our crêches — — all the whole wonderful crowded and blessèd world that was too big and too good and too marvelous to fit in any old inn, all the goodness and grace of God poured out from heaven on high, all the abundant blessing that couldn’t find room in an inn, — but found plenty of room to spread out on the fields in which the shepherds watched, to spread abroad in the heavens filled to overflowing with angels, to shine far beyond the horizon in the light of a star that would bring wise men from the ends of the earth to worship a child born to be king.
There was no room in the inn for all of these, but there was room enough in a world that had waited long to receive them. There was room enough in hearts that were open, and there always will be. And so, tonight on this most holy night, we remember and tell that story again, we remember and celebrate those shepherds and those angels, we look forward to the arrival of those wise men, and we remember most especially the mother and the father turned away from the inn in which they found no room, and the little child that mother bore and laid in a manger, that little child of whom the angels sang, that little child whom the shepherds worshiped, that little child whom we now glorify, Jesus Christ our Lord. O come, let us adore him. +
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG