After this summer, I really understand the words, "No room in the inn." When we had people sleeping in every bed, couch and cot and a trailer in our carport, we were full up. In fact, some old friends wrote an email just at the beginning of that time and asked if they could stay with us for their son's baseball tournament here in town, and we wrote back to say, "If you're willing to pitch a tent, we'd be glad to have you." It was wild and wonderful and I wouldn't change a thing. Well, except maybe to have a second floor on our house with more sleeping space and a couple more bathrooms. Maybe a larger kitchen. But the hosting of people, the community that happens around a table, the grins on Grampie's face every day: these are the precious gifts of our summer.
For all that, I can't imagine running an inn. Making it my life's work to keep linens clean and fresh, to make meals for people who are passing through. For me, it would be a harried life, one very far out of my comfort zone. I'm not a servant by nature and would not be equal to the many domestic tasks necessary for such a venture. Beve might, and what he'd be doing with grace and ease, my work would be clumsy and I'd be harried and stressed. Probably eight days out of seven.
A person must be called to the work of hospitality. To inn-keeping and making folks feel relaxed and special and able to rest in a place not their own. And when I think of Bethlehem's inn on that day during the census when the town was swollen to bursting with David's descendants, I like to imagine inn-keepers good at their calling. Deft at handling the crowd at their table, able to bark orders and put out 'brush-fires' with good humor. I don't imagine a mean-spirited woman but a somewhat matronly, kindly woman with an apron around her ample waist, and her more lean husband, the actual inn-keeper, hustling to do the heavy work--help put up the animals, carry bags, chop wood, etc. Yes, I'm mixing a whole lot of centuries in my imagination (were there aprons in 4 BC?), but imagination has license.
So I imagine the last man coming to the door, late at night, his wife on a donkey just beyond the reach of light. She's been sweating lightly though the night is cool, and her gasps of pain have come more frequently in the last few hours, making him sweat as well. She presses on the hard bulge beneath her cloak, holding it, swaying, and it's all he can do to hold her on the donkey and guide them to this inn. Now he knocks with the force of fear, and when the inn-keeper opens the door, the man's face alights with hope.
"A room, please." he says.
But the inn-keeper frowns. "We're full up."
"But my wife...she needs a place." He looks back at the young woman slumping on the donkey. "A baby's coming."
The inn-keeper looks away, awkwardly (this is not a thing for men), and motions to his wife. She comes toward the door, drying her hands on her apron. The inn-keeper whispers to her. They look at the man sadly, but shake their heads. "We've people in hallways, in the eating room. There really is no room left." Then the inn-keeper says, "but the stable...it's not clean, but out of the weather, at least."
The wife says, "Go now, I'll bring you some towels, some hot water. Some soup."
So they are turned away from the inn.
But not turned away from shelter. A stable. A dirty, musty, messy stable. Not with just one cow, a couple of chickens, lambs as our creches always give include, but also full up. Full of the pack-animals of all those folks who have come to Bethlehem. Jam-packed with them. But Joseph finds a somewhat clean corner, places his cloak down on the hay and helps his young wife off the donkey finally. She lays back on the hay and breathes out, "Thank God."
Yes, thank God. She means it. For His presence on their journey, for His provision in the stable, for the end of that hard journey and the end of her longer journey.
And for what lies ahead. Immediately ahead. For the work of the next few hours, and the result of that work. "The virgin will conceive and bear a child..." She will see the fruit of that conception soon. The son she will love as no other. And she alone can thank God for that.
Imagine Jesus being your child. Imagine. I think of how I love my children, how I felt when they were born, how I could hardly wait to see their faces and curl their hands around a finger. To pick features that came from Beve or me or someone else in our family. So I imagine those hours in the stable (or cave, as some scholars believe), and imagine Mary waiting for the giant, "THANK GOD," she'd be saying when she sees her baby's face. Her baby--and God's.
I don't think she cared where she was then. I don't think any of us would have. The world itself is only encompasses that small baby in her arms. I know this feeling. Every woman who's ever had a baby experiences Mary's moment here.
But we also have this moment: when we first meet Jesus. In a stable. On a street corner, in a church sanctuary or camp, when we first see His face, we are like Mary. That is our Christmas morning. Face to face with the one we've been longing for--even when we didn't know it. Face to face with the One we've been struggling about or laboring over or whatever. The story of the road to Bethlehem is our story. Our coming to Him story. It looks different on each of us, but in the end, when we see Him and know Him, there are angels singing Glory to God. FOR US. Yes, for each of us.
Glory to God in the Highest.
Who is on the road in your life? Who is in labor (even if they don't know it)? Who is sweating and working and struggling in the dirt of a stable without recognizing what is about to happen?
Thank God for them, ask God for them, trust God for them.