Luke’s is the only Gospel that records the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. It is hard to think of any passage from Scripture that has greater power over the imagination, especially for children, than the Nativity. And why not? It is a story that has everything kids can relate to: a family “trip,” a baby, angels, shepherds, animals.
Granted, many of the details we associate with the Nativity – cows, camels, donkeys, and so on – aren’t actually mentioned in the Gospel, but that only underscores the point. No episode in the life of Christ, not even the Passion, is so apt to the young imagination.
Christmas is the most human of the Church’s great feasts, the most accessible to us on a natural level. Christmas is when we encounter God at His most approachable and familiar: as a newborn baby.
In his homily at Christmas Midnight Mass in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI put it succinctly: “It is as if God were saying: I know that my glory frightens you, and that you are trying to assert yourself in the face of my grandeur. So now I am coming to you as a child, so that you can accept me and love me.”
This, too, accounts for the ease with which children fall in love with the Christmas story – and explains some of the reason that the power of Christmas stays with us even as we grow older and busier. For most of us, no feast calls to mind the joys (and perhaps sorrows) of our youth more than Christmas.
The older I get, the more I notice that the joy of Christmas carries with it an undertone of the sweetest sadness. How wondrous that Christmas joy should be so different from Easter joy (the latter being more mundane, in the best possible sense of that word.)
One of the characters in the Nativity story who has increasingly interested me as I grow older is, like the donkey or the camel, not actually mentioned in the Gospel. I’m thinking of the poor innkeeper.
In Luke’s Gospel, the Holy Family arrives in the town of Bethlehem only to find that there is “no room for them in the inn.” The anonymous innkeeper is usually conjured up as a cautionary tale about worldly people being too busy and self-centered to receive Christ when he comes.
Pope Benedict, in that same 2012 Christmas homily, used this point to reflect on our own preparedness to receive Christ:
I am also repeatedly struck by the Gospel writer’s almost casual remark that there was no room for them at the inn. Inevitably the question arises, what would happen if Mary and Joseph were to knock at my door. Would there be room for them?
The great moral question of our attitude towards the homeless, towards refugees and migrants, takes on a deeper dimension: do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself?
Pope Benedict provides a beautiful meditation on the humility of God and the dangers of worldly cares. Each of us must overcome our own self-absorption so that we can receive, not only the babe of Bethlehem, but also the poor and indigent with whom our Lord so closely identifies.
But about that innkeeper…
I do wonder if, in imagining him as callous and preoccupied, we’re not doing him an injustice.
It’s easy to assume that the poor innkeeper turned the Holy Family away and shut the door in their faces. But why assume that? What if the only reason Mary had so much as a manger to lay her newborn baby in was because the innkeeper offered them what little he had by way of shelter? Someone gave shelter to Joseph and Mary, why assume it wasn’t the innkeeper? Why assume their humble surroundings were the result of malice or indifference?
Christmas lends itself to the imagination, so let’s imagine:
Imagine Joseph knocking on the door of the inn, late at night. The innkeeper answers the door. The inn is full, thanks to Caesar’s census. But the innkeeper can see the care on Joseph’s face. He can see the young Mary, as pregnant as she can get. His rooms are full. He can hardly wake his paying guests and throw them out in the middle of the night!
So, the innkeeper does what he can.
He offers the traveling pair a stable. It’s humble, but at least it’s warm. He offers it to them without cost. He brings a little food, something to drink. He brings blankets and water to wash. Maybe his wife gives him a strange look, as if to say, “Are you nuts? Who are these people?” But he helps anyway. Or maybe his wife is as generous as he is, and she helps, too. They check in on Mary and Joseph through the night – careful not to intrude but making sure the travelers have whatever they need.
Maybe the innkeeper is an honest man, a compassionate man whose whole life and livelihood are devoted to hospitality. And having given what little he had to offer, with as much love and care as he could, he was granted the grace to play host to God Himself without ever knowing Who was under his roof – or at least in his stable.
Maybe the innkeeper of Bethlehem is a reminder that, when we are generous toward those with no hope of repaying our kindness, when we give what we have no matter how humble the gift, God can transform our meager efforts into something marvelous, even world-changing. Maybe.
I like to think so, anyway.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.