Friday, December 24, 2010
An Open Door At The Christmas Inn
That phrase conjures such horrors in the minds of people like me that it has reverberated down through the ages - no room, no room, no room. It has become a metaphor for Christ himself in a world which is hostile to the message of love and simplicity he came to teach. No room for you, Jesus. Find somewhere else to be born. Not here, not here. Our doors are closed.
But what a PR coup this is. What a twist on what most likely actually happened.
Living in India for nearly 30 years, I have a different take on the story. I think Mary and Joseph turned up at what passed for an inn in those days, at their income level. They certainly would have known better than to have asked for a room at a Best Western or the Taj. The inn they chose would have been a dharamsala, a place for poor people like themselves, a place where weary travelers huddled together in whatever space they could carve out for themselves - on the floor, wrapped in their own capes and rough blankets.
Was that a place for a young woman to give birth? Right in the midst of all the others? I think the innkeeper, who was probably poor himself, did the best he could in the circumstances, the way the poor always do. I think he thought creatively and compassionately and suggested the stable as quieter, more private and, with the heavy bodies of the animals filling up the space, warmer too.
And who turned up first to greet the newborn? Not the Mighty Three Kings, who arrived almost two weeks late, bearing useless gifts of the kind Jesus would warn against when he grew up. No, it was the shepherds, also poor people, who came in haste across the fields to see this thing which had come to pass.
In the popular legend, the innkeeper is the villain and the shepherds are just a bunch of villagers frightened by an angel into leaving their flocks and rushing pell-mell to see what was up. The Kings, on the other hand, are stately, thoughtful men of wisdom and gravitas, men who studied the skies and planned their journey in advance, even to the last detail of the gifts.
I'm not trashing the kings. Frankincense and Myrrh have their place in this world, I suppose. But as we reflect on the story again this Christmas, let's spare a kind thought for the innkeeper who did his best at the very moment he was asked; for the shepherds who left everything they possessed to go and pay their respects immediately, not waiting for the shops to be open so they could buy a suitable gift first.
Because a woman about to give birth needs a place this minute. And a newborn king would like to meet his subjects today.