Friday, December 26, 2008

There Is A Place For You

The Christmas story holds endless fascination for us for many reasons. One of the characters who captures my imagination in this drama is the unnamed innkeeper.

As I see the movie playing in my head about this holy night, there are many thousands of folks on the roads of Judea that week, each returning to his or her hometown to be registered by the government for the census, as was the decree of the empire. Awful time for a pregnant woman to have to travel, but that was the law.

The trip from Nazareth to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem was over 60 miles, and took a number of days to travel. Mary was heavy with child and bone tired. Joseph had already approached several inns along the road that late afternoon, but they were all already full. No room. It was getting late and Mary couldn’t go much further.

The anonymous innkeeper of Luke’s immortal story sized up the situation instinctively. He too had no vacancy in his establishment, but instead of turning the young couple away, he performed a simple act of kindness: he made a place for them.

He asked the young couple to indulge him a few minutes. He disappeared to the stables where the livestock were boarded for the evening. He found one empty stall that he carefully swept. He placed fresh hay on the dirt floor. He cleared out a feed trough and lined it with the cleanest saddle blankets he could lay hold of. It wasn’t much, but it would be better than a cold hillside.

Then he led the holy family to the barn of Messiah birth.

He could have easily and perhaps justifiably gone about his business. He was stretched to capacity that night with so many guests, distracted by so many needs. But, in the midst of all the stress and demand of that fateful evening, he took the time. He made a place.

The biblical texts of course do not mention an innkeeper. And make only a singular and brief notation of an inn. But, in our imagination we see an individual of exceptional moral compassion and sensitivity, who employed a simple kindness that played a critical role in the arrival of the Christ child.

I see another scene in the movie in my head: Jesus’ mother and father telling him this story over and over again throughout his boyhood moral formation, about a stranger’s generosity that made his birth possible, a surprising provision on a cold night, and a Divine Providence so ingenious that it transformed the unlikeliest of persons into an angel of mercy.

There are angels dispatched for us from on high right now, if we have the cinematic and sanctified imagination to believe it. They are busy acting on our behalf, bringing about our good, transforming our circumstances of scarcity into interventions of abundance. They are clearing out the refuse, preparing what Hemingway piercingly described as that “clean, well-lighted place” we all long for.

Long no longer. It’s Christmas. In Jesus, God has made room.

There is a place for you.


Unknown said...

Ah Charlie, as always you give a new perspective. I have always thought of the innkeeper as stingy. He could have given that poor mother-to-be his own room. He missed an opportunity to open his home to the Messiah. After reading your lovely commentary, perhaps I was too harsh and judgmental. Perhaps he already had family of his own coming out of the woodwork. Perhaps his wife was ill or his own babies sleeping, surrounded by the chaos that census would have created. Perhaps he gently gave Mary his arm and led her to the stall, cleaning the way as much as possible. Perhaps he gathered fresh straw and offered water and blankets. Perhaps he left his own lantern so the birth would not happen in the dark of that cold night. What a different, sweet picture you have painted and I am grateful for the change of my own heart in this kinder interpretation.

Such is the way of the Christian pilgrim. We look at what the world around us calls normal and buy into it. Human nature is selfish, but the divine spirit of God given in this little child can make the meanest of us generous, if we will just allow Him.

The headlines look grim, but the Book has the happiest ending of all. And it started in a tiny manger, 2000 years ago, with the kindness of a stranger at the birth of the King.

Merry, merry Chirstmas, Charlie and Jana. May God bless us, everyone.

Charlie Johnson said...

Dear Randi,

Your response enriches my "sanctified imagination" about that holy night. I love your added details; they fill out the picture I have of that stressed-out innkeeper. Thank you.

This is the kind of reading behind the text that I believe enlightens our understanding of Scripture. Such an approach requires an understanding of the historical situation which shapes the text. That is why serious Bible study is so critical.

Your personal blessing is always a gift to Jana and me, dear friend. We are well, enjoying the ever-present goodness of life. May you and Martin reap wonders of joy this Christmas too, and throughout the new year!