There was a priest in England recently who was accused of ruining Christmas. He gave a talk to some school children about St. Nicholas and when his technological device stopped working he started to ad lib, describing some of the grislier details of a miracle attributed to St. Nicholas.
I hope, after this sermon, no one will accuse me of ruining Christmas. Because I’ve recently learned a couple of things I find fascinating about the Christmas story. But they don’t necessarily line up with what I learned as a child.
For one thing, I learned recently, that amongst peasants in the first century, out in the provinces of the Roman Empire, just in the sort of place where Jesus was born, out there, animals didn’t live in separate structures. There were no barns or sheds. The family’s animals were in the very same building the family lived in, albeit in a separate room. This aided in security and just made the most economic sense for people living with very little. So Mary likely gave birth in just such a side room, normally reserved for the family’s animals.
Even more surprising to me, I’ve been told that the word for ‘inn’ in our story might be better translated as guest room. That Mary and Joseph probably were staying with Joseph’s relatives, but they had to camp with the animals because there was no room for them in the guest room.
Now at first, I felt a little crestfallen when I read all this. There’s something about the notion of Mary giving birth to Jesus with only Joseph there that had always captured my imagination. The idea that there might be family all around changes the story somewhat.
But I wonder if there isn’t something more being offered in this version. If we imagine a children’s pageant happening here in front of us, what if we cut the character of the innkeeper and instead substitute let’s say an aunt or uncle?
Imagine it being late, when Mary and Joseph arrive unexpectedly. The house is already full of guests. And yet, hospitality is shown to the relatives, the travelers, the soon to-be-parents. The best rooms aren’t available, but there is some space in the room where the animals live. These are poor, peasant people, but they find a way to make room.
The Christ child is born in their home, all because they showed hospitality to two needy people in this world. Now, some people may want to stop me here and say, “Christine, they’re relatives and she’s pregnant! Of course they’re going to show hospitality.” To which I would respond ‘yes, however.’ For family is often a complicated thing. I’m sure none of you had any conflicts at dinner or as you made your way to church here tonight. Perhaps my family is the only one in which an occasion like Christmas often brings out a lot of… feeling.
Making room is hard because it breaks up established patterns. Many people seek after God, looking for inner peace or transcendent experiences, and that may be what brought you here tonight. Prayers and rituals help connect us to the God who created us. But we can sometimes forget that, often, when we hear the stories of those who’ve gone before, we see folks who find God when they make room for other people in their lives. When we can do something for someone else, or build a relationship with someone we wouldn’t normally talk to, often this is the way in which God comes. And sometimes, the people we have to make room for are not strangers, but our very own family and friends.
Joseph’s relatives show us that when we make room, and break from our established patterns, God enters in.
As a kid, my bedroom was notoriously messy. Which is why the hymn “Joy to the world” always gave me pause. The first verse of the hymn contains the line, “let every heart prepare him room.” I took this lyric quite literally, thinking that before Jesus could come into my heart I had to have everything together. I had to get it all right, dust the furniture, put things away, and make the bed. It seemed impossible.
But here I think we find another lesson from these unknown relatives who showed hospitality on that night so many years ago. For they didn’t get it quite right. Perhaps, with hindsight, knowing that the king of kings and lord of lords was coming, they might move other relatives to stay with the animals and give Mary and Joseph the guest room. Or, maybe they would have offered up their own room.
But they don’t do it perfectly, they simply respond out of love. And again, God enters in. Jesus is born. In this life, I think we can focus too much on the cleaning up and trying to get it all right. And sometimes religious people especially can get caught up in this sort of navel-gazing endeavor. But really, I think God wants us to make room, to make space. Not close ourselves off. I give thanks that here at St. Matthew’s is a community that seeks to do that. People who want to make the circle bigger so everyone can come in, not folks trying to decide who’s right and who’s wrong.
God wants us to make space, in our hearts, our lives, our communities.
At Christmas, Christ was born into a world in which the people’s vision had become too small, too narrow. Jesus’ birth meant that Joseph’s relatives literally had to make room in their dwelling.
And when Jesus is born in our hearts we too must make room. We may have to jettison narrow self-interest, or ego-driven exploits, but in so doing we are making room for the wideness of God’s love and mercy. We are making room for this child, the one who cares more about the downcast and the brokenhearted than about the rich and the powerful, the one who comes into our lives and calms the storm, heals the sick, and comforts the comfortless. We are making room for this one, this Jesus who came among us to save us from our sins, that there might be peace on earth, goodwill towards men. I pray we might all find some space in our hearts for him tonight.