December 25, 2020 At St. Peter & St. William Churches in Naples, FL
Isaiah 9, 1-6 + Psalm 96 + Titus 2, 11-14 + Luke 2, 1-14
More years ago, than I care to think about, my school was putting on the traditional Christmas pageant. Believe me, none of us boys were the least bit interested in being angels. Not because it would have been out of character, after all everyone knew that I was the perfect angel from the beginning. It was just a matter of those white dresses and the wings. The little kids were better at that. Then there was the role of shepherds: it wasn’t a bad role. You just had to wear your dad’s bathrobe and tie it up with a rope. But none of us were particularly interested in carrying that stuffed lamb around either. The starring role for us guys was Joseph, most of all because he never said anything, no lines to memorize. So, like the role of Mary, everyone secretly wanted to get called to be Joseph. I didn’t get it. Instead, Sister cast me as the Inn Keeper. It wasn’t a bad role. I just had to open and close this door without knocking over the set. My lines were easy: “There’s no room. Go away.” I still remember my lines, and to tell you the truth, they have begun to bother me from time to time.
All of our images and experiences in celebrating the Birth of Christ Jesus are more influenced by imagination than by the Sacred Scriptures, and as we proclaim this all too familiar story today, we might need to pay more attention to the facts we are given than to the traditions and images that have grown up around it. The truth is, what we think we know may not be very accurate. For instance, the word “Inn” so often used to translate the Greek word: “Kataluma” is far from accurate. It’s a word used only one other time in the Bible, and that time is the “Upper Room” of the last supper. Archeologists tell us that most of the human dwellings at that time had an upper room reserved for guests.
The fact is, Bethlehem was an out-of-the way little hamlet. The only reason to be there would be to pass through on your way somewhere else. There was no Hotel 6 or Holiday Inn 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. Joseph could not have called ahead to reserve a room. Why would he? It was his home town. Add to this the fact that the Hebrew people would have considered it a terrible offence against God to refuse hospitality to anyone. No Jewish person would have sent a stranger away. So, when the Gospel tells us that they were there for several days, there is suddenly no urgency to the scene at all. What is more probable, given the details Luke provides, is that the guest room was taken, and the home he approached welcomed them into the family space in which these people kept their animals at night as way of keeping them from being stolen and as a way of staying warm.
Listening to the story Luke provides allows us to focus on the message it carries rather than be entertained by the lovely little skits and plays we have enjoyed over the years. At some point we have to get through all the extras that have been added over the years and get down to the true meaning and message, because what really happened is nothing short of astounding. It is so profound, in fact, that maybe we need the little stories to cope with it.
God came. God came into this world at that time, and God came to stay. Jesus stepped into our world. He willingly took on human flesh not just to pretend or try it on for size. He did it fully aware of what it might mean: being mocked, harassed, beaten, flogged, and crucified for one reason. He revealed the truth. He was the truth, the truth about the power of love.
Love makes human do some very amazing things, and we all have our stories about that. But, God has us all beat. God humbled himself to become one of us, to be revealed first in a manger, a food trough, and then to become the very food that saves. He died on purpose to take away sin that is the cause of death so that we might live.
In this most sacred liturgy on this memorable day, we must step into this story with hospitable hearts making sure that God has a dwelling place within us. We cannot personally grasp the meaning and message here if we are too busy to listen to one another, too busy make room for someone seeking safety or shelter, too distracted with our work or our careers, too busy to come to church and adore, or too busy all the time with our shallow and selfish pursuits.
There is a reason for this season. It is to awaken us if we have dozed off to the truth that God has come, that God is here, and that God is to be found not in power, in glamor, in the richest places and the finest palaces. God comes to the Bethlehems of this earth: to the simplest, the least and littlest, and the most insignificant places and people. When we finally do get the message and hang on to it, this will be a time and place of universal love, warm hospitality for all, and we will all be at peace.