Christmas Eve: Luke 2:1-14
There’s so much in those few words we hear year after year: “laid him in a manger;” “no room in the inn.” But there’s a problem. It’s the word always translated in English as “inn.” It makes us think of a Bethlehem Best Western. Or a few rooms above a tavern. Some place with shelter and beds.
The word in the original just means “guest room.” Literally, it’s “upper room.” It could mean a place in the home of someone rich enough to have a house with a spare room up on the flat roof.
It could also mean a big, open space, walled and roofed in on top of homes, market stalls, workshops, or stables. An eating place by day. At night a place for weary travellers to sleep on the floor with their possessions within easy reach. More hostel than Holiday Inn. A person might be better off outside.
What about a couple about to have a baby? I think it’s most likely Jesus is born in a very public place. Maybe where there’s water, and some straw for animals.
Maybe they have some shelter. The family takes refuge in an alleyway. Or maybe just against the wall in the yard. Imagine Mary is stretched out on the ground, exhausted. Joseph sits up, but slumped over. They find a little box for their firstborn’s first bed. A feed box, maybe. Not much bigger than a scoop for grain.
No farm animals looking on. No innkeeper. Not an angel in sight. They’re alone, at least in that moment. Safe? Maybe for that moment. We want to believe they’re safe. That’s why we need them to be in a warm, unnaturally clean stable.
Nobody in this story is safe. Not the people uprooted at the whim of a faraway emperor. Not the crowds filling every corner in Bethlehem, waiting for the next decree to tell them where to go. Not the shepherds, out in the field, risking their lives for someone else’s sheep.
In a religious and political tinderbox announcing the birth of a Saviour, Christ the Lord, is like lighting a torch. The glory of the Lord shines around those shepherds and strikes sparks that light a fire on the earth. Luke doesn’t tell us exactly where Jesus is born because he wants us to get that Jesus is exposed to the world. Even at the moment of his birth there’s nowhere to hide him.
If we really want to find him we have to look in the least expected, least likely, least hospitable places. We’ll find him where we feared he might not be, believed he couldn’t be, or forgot he would be. We can find courage to go where everyone and everything around us says there’s no room for hope, no place for us, and no good news.
Jesus was born when and where everything and everyone around him said there was no hope for people like him and his family. No good news for anyone but the imperial one per cent.
We come together at the darkest time of the year to find some light. Light that will push all our darknesses back, if only a little. We look for a sanctuary, where it’s safe to hope. We renew ourselves in this story, then go out into the night to live our stories. May we discover what it means that Jesus was born into our lives and circumstances. Exposed. Not protected from the darknesses that frighten us.
Jesus could have been born anywhere. But he’s born in our world.
About Laurence DeWolfe
Rev. Dr. Laurence DeWolfe is minister at Glenview, Toronto.