Rector, Casey Shobe Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe, D.Min.
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
December 24, 2018
The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord

Making Room for Christ

Texts:

When you travel to the Holy Land, you begin to appreciate just how much we get the location of Jesus’ birth all wrong. For most of us, we’ve watched too many pageants with too many grumpy innkeepers, and it’s calcified some ideas about what that fateful night in Bethlehem was like, ideas that are probably not correct historically, and may be preventing us from grasping the deeper truth of the Incarnation of the Son of God.

It all begins with the famous line from Luke’s gospel, “and they laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya from A Princess Bride, “I do not think it means what [we] think it means.” The word “inn” means something particular to most of us in the modern world, but it meant something quite different at the time of Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph didn’t cruise the town looking at La Quintas and Best Westerns until finally a sympathetic Holiday Inn manager offered them the barn out back. Notice that the story doesn’t say anything about a barn, though popular lore has placed the story there.

Actually, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Jesus is believed to have been born in a cave. If you’ve been to Bethlehem yourself and descended the steps to the grotto below the Greek Orthodox Church of the Nativity, you were entering into that cave. Homes were often built attached to caves in ancient Palestine – what with their insulation capability in the hot summer and cold winter – so it is believed that the Holy Family may have been staying in one for the birth. Orthodox Christians actually take the story of the cave even further by proposing that Mary delivered Jesus in that cave all by herself. The way they tell it, Joseph was off fetching help when the baby came, so Mary was forced to labor and deliver alone. It’s part of why Orthodox priests celebrate the Eucharist behind a door and unseen by the congregation, because the act of bringing Jesus into existence through the mystery of the Eucharist echoes the mystery of Jesus coming into the world that fateful first night, unaccompanied by any save his holy mother.

Scholars are unsure about whether Mary and Joseph would have found lodging in Bethlehem in a cave, and many feel that is an unnecessary addition to the story. As in most things, the simplest answer is often the best and most correct, and in the case of the Nativity of our Lord, the simplest solution involves no stodgy innkeepers or barns or caves, because none are mentioned at all in the story itself. The word that we read in English as “inn” is the Greek word katalyma, which literally means “a place to stay.” In ancient Greek, there was a particular word for a commercial inn (the proverbial Bethlehem Best Western), but that word, pandocheion, is not the word Luke uses in the story. Luke uses katalyma. Which means Luke probably had in mind a “place to stay” like a home, or more particularly, the extremely common guest room in the homes of that region. The story implies that the guest room was full, but first century Palestinian homes would also have another small room attached to their house, which was where the manger was located for the animals nearly all families kept. Mary and Joseph, then, would most likely have been welcomed by a local family into this spare room, because – and this is so important – it would have been unthinkable for a Palestinian Jewish family to turn someone away, let alone an extremely pregnant woman. [1]

As sweetly sentimental as a barn on a lonely hillside under the stars may be, and as much as the presence of heartless innkeepers adds some enjoyable “bad guys” to the story, it’s not doing us any good to keep the story of the Nativity buried under layers of mythology. Mary and Joseph were almost certainly not rejected by inhospitable locals, but welcomed and given safe lodging in a local home. Joseph was not some bumbling Biblical Clark Griswold, and neither was Mary a superhero forced to give birth unassisted in a cold cave. Jesus most likely came into the world surrounded by local midwives in a spare room of an ordinary home in the region. The people of Bethlehem offered the best they could to preserve their honor and respect their guests, just as any person would in that same city today. In fact, the Holy Family may have spent their first weeks or even months receiving the hospitality of the village, which is why, when the magi finally arrive, according to Matthew’s gospel, they find the family in a house.

I may have lost some of you with this history and linguistic lesson, and you may be wondering what the point is. Well, here’s the thing—when we imagine Christ being born out on a hillside in a solitary stable, we are trapping our Savior in hermetically-sealed perfection. But when we realize that Mary and Joseph actually came knocking at someone’s door, and had to be shown somewhere safe right there in the center of things – in and among a particular community, a particular home, a particular family – well, that means we have to answer the knock on our door, too, and make space in the midst of our lives, in the middle of everything, in a place we cannot avoid.

“Let every heart prepare him room,” we joyfully sing tonight in that great carol. Every heart, yes…and every personal calendar. And every “to-do” list. And every bank account. Because the story of the Nativity is not simply about what God did back then, but also about what we do in response today: how we welcome Christ into the world and into our homes and into the closest intimacy of our lives, so that he can actually be Emmanuel – “with us” – and do all the eternal and life-changing things that only God can do, things like healing and forgiving and resurrecting.

This time of year, we hear a lot about “keeping Christ in Christmas,” which is certainly nice enough, but the problem is that once Christmas is over, Christ can quickly fade from our imaginations. Especially when we keep the Holy Family safely in a barn behind museum glass, there’s not a lot left for you to do after the tree hits the curb. But if he and his holy parents are invited into the middle of your home, of your life, well, you can’t pack him away quite so easily after the New Year. That’s why our calling is to more than “Keep Christ in Christmas,” but “Keep Christ in Christians.”

Let’s make room for him in our homes and in our lives beyond the day when the presents have all been unwrapped and the malls stop playing “Deck the Halls.” Let’s keep him at the center of our lives tomorrow as we’re gathered with our complicated and not always easy-to-be-with families; let’s keep him at the center of our lives the day after that, when we go back to work and are tempted to slip back into our old habits and routines. And let’s keep him at the center of our lives next week, and next month, and whenever events in our lives and around our world shock us out of our holiday revelry and remind us why God needed to send his only Son to be our Savior in the first place. Because when we let him get close, when we let him inside, when we let him inhabit the most intimate parts of our lives, we finally discover why it is that the angels sang so joyously the night he was born.

Keep Christ in Christians – in us! – dear friends, because he didn’t come to simply adorn the front of lovely cards or distract us with a nice story, and he certainly didn’t come to inspire a consumer bonanza every December. Jesus came to change everything about everything, to begin a revolution of mercy and love that would return the sin-sick and weary world we see now to the peaceful and just way the world is meant to be.

So prepare him room, my friends. Answer his knock. Welcome him home. Invite him not only into your heart, but into the heart of your life. For the love that came down at Christmas is coming to you, too.

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[1] I am incredibly indebted to Kenneth Bailey’s work Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (IVP Academic, 2008), which unpacks the absurdity of most modern notions of the birth narrative, including both exegetical and cultural analysis. See pages 25-37.