Raleigh Mennonite Church
Earlier this week I was standing in a long line at the post office, waiting for stamps. As such, I was in the unusual position to pay more attention to the church mail than I usually do.
An old-school newsprint paper was in the middle of the stack. It’s the paper printed by the Catholic Worker in Des Moines, Iowa. I picked it up and saw in the middle of the page a hand-drawn icon. Mary and Joseph stand at the inn. In shadow we see a figure. We don’t hear him in the Bible. His voice is inferred. We imagine the words and their speaker. “There is no room here, no room at the inn.”
This anonymous host is the patron saint of Catholic Worker homes. These communities were founded by Dorothy Day, a convert to Catholicism who found her way into the life of the poor. The Catholic Worker movement began as a newspaper to organize for the rights of workers, then an apartment for those who wished to enter a life of voluntary poverty. It grew into a movement of people who want to live with and among the poor.
We don’t know much about this part of the Christmas story, the part about the place where Mary and Joseph look for shelter. We don’t know if Mary and Joseph went to the overcrowded home of a relative, to a guest-room, only to be put at the back of the house with the animals.
We don’t know if Mary and Joseph, wanting to remove the cultural shame of unwed pregnancy from their kin, sought a public place to stay in Bethlehem. But what we do know is that an overtaxed, overwhelmed host greeted and made space for the Holy Family.
It is this person, the innkeeper who lends vivid realism to the eve of Christmas. He is a specter in the back of the story, unnamed, but the one delivers the news to a panicked Joseph and his laboring wife. There is no room here. You will have to make do.
I imagine him like all managers of dingy, low-cost temporary housing.
I can see him, the weary clerk of the Holiday Inn on the outskirts of town.
I can see him, the underpaid homeless shelter worker.
I can see her, the grandmother who takes in another set of grandchildren when all the chips are down for her daughter.
I see her, ready to turn in, ready to attend to her own needs, but instead the long line of ragged refuges stretches around the corner.
The innkeeper is each of us, the one who does not know that this family she’s managed to squeeze into the animal pen, perhaps the tenth or hundredth of the night, that this particular woman in early labor – she bears within her God’s Son, Jesus.
For the innkeeper there is no sign pointing to Mary and her swollen belly. No star alerts him to Emmanuel, no angel choir announces the arrival of the King of Kings and Prince of Peace. The innkeeper is unprepared, attending to a crowd of strangers or family, doing the best he can on limited resources, doing the best he can with what he has.
The innkeeper is each of us, each of us discovering that recognizing Jesus is more complicated, harsher, grittier than we had imagined. And in this story, this character pushed to the back of the Christmas story, in the innkeeper we see that there is grace.
Because Jesus finds a way into the world, within the cracks, demanding so little, making good of the scarcity, the little that we have to offer. Jesus is always finding a way to us, always on the way to us, even if we miss him. That’s the grace of love, that Jesus is always returning, always coming to us again.
On Christmas Eve I am reminded of the many Jesuses who were welcomed by the host that night, all those travelers. They were victims of an oppressive system of Roman occupation, a merciless system that demanded the dangerous travel of heavily pregnant women. On this night I remember all those sheltered by the innkeeper, the space made in caves and tents, all the room that was made for the poor and the oppressed.
I suppose that the innkeeper reminds us that Jesus enters the world for those of us just getting by – just getting by financially, just getting by with the mental health we can eek out, just getting by on our paycheck, just getting by on the speck of faith we can muster.
Jesus is there, among the other Christs, the others welcomed into a world by the harried host, a world where there simply isn’t enough.
This God finds a way in through cracks, with the little we have, when no star makes the way plain.
We’re in a time when it’s hard to know how Jesus can possibly fit in through the cracks of this world, when the world is so full of suffering, when we cannot help but turn some aside. Jesus knows what it is like to enter into this kind of world. It was the world he was born into, a country confused about how to resist the terror of Herod, a country unsure of what the future held.
Still, God finds a way, the God who find a way back to you, who finds a way in, past of all of it.
This Jesus returns to us again and again.
We are always given the grace to try again, to get it wrong, to welcome a different broken body, to find Jesus there, too. That’s the grace of this season, friends. God finds a way. God finds a way into the world, to those squeezed into the hard places, those who barely have enough. God finds a way, squeezing into the cracks of this world. God finds a way.