How many of you have come to stay with relatives this evening or will be staying with relatives in the next few days? How many of you are hosting guests or family this week?
In our humble home, we are hosting my parents. Their “guest room” is on the lower level (i.e. basement) where there is a more private bathroom. Even so, they are sleeping in the space I use as a small office. The washing machine and dryer, which can often be quite noisy, is right next to their room. But these accommodations are a vast improvement over previous years, which included a well-used futon, a heavily-shared bathroom, and sleeping under a Christmas tree on a rubber mattress on Xmas Eve in Florida many years ago in a crowded apartment that had a coffee table which doubled as a kitchen table. We did what we could do; we made do with the best we could offer.
There was no room at the inn. Despite lots of layers of tradition and mistranslations, Jesus was not born in a kind of stable outside of the local Motel 6 equivalent in Bethlehem. He wasn’t born in a barn, or a courtyard, or castle fit for a king. Not to disappoint anyone, but Mary and Joseph were likely staying with Joseph’s relatives when the time unexpectedly came for Mary to deliver. Scholars who treat this story with historical integrity surmise that Joseph likely needed to find a more suitable space from Mary to deliver a child, one that might have had greater privacy and greater space for a typical peasant birth to occur.
We are so accustomed to the more familiar and accepted translations of Luke’s gospel that we don’t question the specific and less historically accuarate translation of “inn.” The word actually used is closer to “guest room” in the Greek (“kataluma”) than to the image of a hotel lacking vacancy at the height of a dubious census season. Given the imperative of hospitality in Mid-Eastern culture, what is most likely is that Mary and Joseph actually found accommodations in a home that did not have an available guest room, or that had a guest room that was already occupied by extended family. It is like if 2 extra relatives come unexpectedly and the entire available communal space is filled up with sleeping bags and multiple suitcases, belongings, etc. Now you have a couple who needs a more privacy than the others, and, well, room to breathe and have a baby of all things!!! So, you might give them the lower level of your home or the enclosed back porch.
Homes back then could be built into cliffs, arising from cave-like structures. The “guest room” where Jesus was born was likely at the back of the home, where the animals were enclosed and sheltered within the family home, to protect them from thieves or predators. It was a room not so much set apart, but part of a small family home, albeit on a different level, the lower level of the home, but under the same roof, off of the communal room. The manger was likely a feeding trough that could easily multi-task, in a pinch, for an overnight crib, with the animals making some accommodations too.
But why does this matter? So many times in telling this beloved story we have given the so-called “innkeeper” a hard time, seeing him or her as cold and callous toward a woman with child and her increasingly anxious husband. But perhaps this story is saying something slightly different—that the birth of Jesus, in such humble surroundings—was not in a Marriott, not in an airbnb, not even in a “proper” guest room, was not isolated but among extended relatives, family, animals, and mid-wiving villagers who were trying to make room in their homes and in their lives for the special needs of a stranger, or the needs of a village son and his new bride. Maybe this story is modeling something about opening our homes to everyday people who just might bear gifts in their flesh who will help deliver us from our hardened ways. Maybe our juggling of intimate space is a holy and sacred practice for making room for God in both private and public spaces, making room not just on the highest levels of power and decision-making, but also making room in our hearts, our minds, and our stories about what it means to be available to God and truly hospitable to God’s ways and God’s priorities in our individual and communal lives.
Make room, we say, to our children, as they slide over a seat or two, so that another may sit at the family table.
“Can’t we make room?” our children question us, after they invite their friends over for an unexpected sleepover without giving us the slightest notice beforehand.
“Make room, please,” we tell our spouse as we ask him or her to share the sofa, or a dinner entrée, or even their side of the bed.
“Have you made room?” we ask our representatives and leaders as they vote on tax codes, legislation, and our future hospitality to those who are increasingly on the margins of life and restricted opportunity.
Instead of closing the door on the stranger, the underprivileged child, or the member of our world’s family who desperately need some accommodation made in love and for love’s sake, we make room, or at least try to make room, in our hearts, lives, laws, and communities not out of charity, but out of respect for God’s ways and God’s love for us. We make room by making room in our hearts and minds, not simply for a belief rooted in the past but for a way of life that is demonstrably inclusive and welcoming and says something about our shared future. We make room by voluntarily being made uncomfortable; we accommodate others by reconfiguring and redistributing our resources to those who have need; we bless by bringing greater awareness to those who are without home or hearth in the hardest of seasons.
Marion Wright Edelman shares a story about Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. some years ago.
She writes, “It was Christmas Eve and the pews at New York City’s Riverside Church were packed. The Christmas pageant was underway and had come to the point at which the innkeeper was to turn away Mary and Joseph with the resounding line, ‘There’s no room at the inn!’
Never mind that no figure of the innkeeper actually appears in scripture. We’ve all imagined him delivering the message of “no room” to the baby Jesus’s parents. And it seemed the perfect part for Tim, an earnest youth of the congregation who had Down Syndrome. Only one line to remember: “There’s no room at the inn!” He had practiced it again and again with his parents and with the pageant director. He seemed to have mastered it.
So Tim stood at the altar, bathrobe costume firmly belted over his broad stomach, as Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle. They approached him, said their lines as rehearsed and waited for his reply. Tim’s parents, the pageant director, and the whole congregation almost leaned forward as if willing Tim to remember his line.
‘There’s no room at the inn!’ Tim boomed out, just as rehearsed. But then, as Mary and Joseph turned on cue to travel further, Tim suddenly yelled, “Wait!” They turned back startled, along with the congregation, and looked at Tim in surprise.
‘You can stay at my house!’ he called.
Sisters and brothers, this is what Christmas is about. This is what God is about. Making room. Offering ourselves.
A few weeks ago, my boys and I eagerly brought home a small 5 month old kitty. Having another living thing in our home presents new challenges, to be sure, but much delight. Earlier today, the children were exiled to the downstairs where they were playing games and basically trying to contain their holiday excitement while Mommy had some quiet time between services. But, about a half hour into this “quiet time,” the kids came running up the stairs explaining that Mommy had to make room in our living room because our kitty had just used her litter box under the stairs and it smelled really bad.
So on went the boombox and up went the volume on the 8th rendition today of “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” Pillows that had been carefully arranged were scattered haphazardly on the floor. Quiet gave way to the sounds of children debating the words of carols and singing at the top of their lungs made up lyrics.
This is what I imagine the nativity was actually like. The earthy smells of animals and the grittiness of a human birth. Both singing and tears. Making room for out of town guests in crowded conditions. Being rendered uncomfortable at times by the giving up of privileges previously given. Making room for God. Making room for love to be born in the mess.
If Christmas is one opportunity to see God en-fleshed, incarnate, may we truly make room, not just at Christmas, but in the coming year.
 “Making Room at the Inn,” Marion Wright Edelman, Huffington Post, 12/22/2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/making-room-at-the-inn_us_5a3d5364e4b0d86c803c716f