“There was no room for them in the inn.”
Without a doubt, that’s the scariest phrase for me in the opening vignettes of Jesus’ miraculous birth and life. Not that an unwed, teenage girl would be his mother; not that his adoptive father was ready to divorce said mother. No, the most terrifying phrase in this story revolves around the fact that the God of the universe came to the world as a tiny, little baby and we couldn’t find a room for him to be born in.
Fragile, baby, human Jesus was laid in a manger. Because there was no room for him.
For so much of my experience of the story, I’ve always judged the innkeeper, the one who sent newlywed Mary and Joseph scurrying into a stable as as Mary went into labor, who thought that the manger was a great place for a newborn to cry.
But, what if I’ve been getting this all wrong? There’s no mention of the actual innkeeper, no context in which to place the person who directed the couple to the stable. So, imagine with me now, what if….
In a land occupied by the Holy Roman Empire, two brothers wrestled and played, under the watchful eye of their mother and father. I don’t quite have in mind that this family was the Hiltons per se, but they were the fine hoteliers who owned the best inns up and down the route from Hebron to Jerusalem. The best of the best went there to stay – people longed to find room to rest on their journey, to see the sights. Both boys knew how to care for the customers’ needs: running errands, lugging bags, setting up the delivery of this food or that treat, as serves the hospitality business. There was even the one time that the stranger brought a broken man, beaten and left for dead, and paid their father to let him stay and feed him until he could recuperate. What generosity! But as the boys grew, one became discontented with the life that he lived, within the context of the family trade.
Merely a boy, a young man of eighteen, the youngest brother watched how hard his older brother work, and saw how slow his progress was within the business. His father granted him privileges, but no ownership of any of their inns was granted – his older brother was always working, but never rewarded with his own space.
Wanting to experience more of the world than that gradual climb, the younger brother swilled down enough liquid courage to approach his father one day, and demand his inheritance, up front, in full. His father was beside himself, angry, sad, torn apart by his son’s brazenness and disrespect, but longing to see his child happy.
Within days, half of the family’s inns were put on the market; by the end of the month, the younger son had set out for foreign lands where he would enjoy the finer things and experience the world he’d longed to see. The elder brother brooded, having stomped out of a shouting match with his father, and cursing the day his younger brother had been born. The boys’ mother fell ill and died soon afterward, whether it was from her own burden of worry or a broken heart, no one was clear. And so father and eldest son settled in again to a corrupted pattern of hard work and sullen silences, with little love for their inns. And with the disinterest, the line of inns dwindled away, slowly.
Meanwhile, the younger son did what a young man with money will do. He squandered the money foolishly on food and drink, parties and women. He enjoyed himself but found that when his money dried up, so did his so-called relationships. He began applying for jobs, assuming his early skill set would earn him a spot in some foreign hostel. But foreigners are often discounted, even ones with great skill, and the young man found himself caring for the stable animals, the horses, the cows, the pigs.
Broken and alone, the young man took up a knife and a block of wood, and managed to whittle out a small reminder of home – a silhouette of a singular inn. As he whittled, he thought back to the songs of his youth, the echo of his parents’ voices, the thrill of serving up breakfast or showing a new guest into their room.
After selling off enough of his carvings, the younger son began the long trek home. His pride was gone: all he wanted was to accepted again into the household of his father, even if only as a servant. Of course, his father saw him coming – he had heard from a traveling salesman that his son had been sighted and was heading back to their home in Bethlehem. Greeting him like a visiting prince, the father welcomed him in and set out a heaping banquet before him.
This naturally didn’t sit well with the other brother, who himself had been caring for the animals in the fields that were required to provide the inn with what it needed in food, milk, and cloth. Arriving as the son went down, he heard the choruses of party songs, and asked one of the servants what all of the fuss was about. Upon hearing his brother had come home, he stalked off- and refused to return when his father approached.
Hours later, the two brothers met in the alley behind the inn. Don’t you know it’s your fault that mother died? Don’t you see that your greed reduced father to this? shouted the elder son, throwing his hands out to encompass the family’s one, remaining inn.
As happens in situations like these, there was nothing to be said or done that would restore order. Nothing that would bring the brothers together. Nothing, even including the passing of their aged father, who left the inn equally to the brothers, binding them financially together in the midst of their separation.
In time, the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus decreed that all of his occupied peoples would submit to a census. Knowing that there were certain taxes failing to reach his treasury, his advisors had told him that he would be able to tighten his control over the empire’s finances. So, each one of the nations under Rome’s thumb trickled the order down to every one of its citizens, even the lowliest of the low.
This provided a momentary financial boon to the two brothers, whose inn received an uptick in traffic. As people came from far and wide to Bethlehem – everyone whose parents had once lived there – the rooms were packed and the brothers hustled, forgetting their momentary strife to fulfill the need. Even the younger brother’s woodcarving business was tabled; what income he’d brought in to help make the bills had merely disappeared in the never-ending train of debt.
Before long, the brothers were turning away potential guests. This angered the older brother, who felt that the emperor’s edict would ultimately cause future guests to ignore the inn once word made its way around. Nothing the younger brother could say would pacify him.
One night, long after the sun had gone down, a couple arrived, bedraggled and exhausted. When they knocked on the inn’s door, the older brother sent his brother to send them away. No room! He roared. Another dissatisfied customer.
Apologetically, the younger brother answered the knocking and passed on the news. The husband visibly grimaced, whispering that this was their fifth attempt, and the younger brother knew that they were out of options. He held his hands up as if to say, what could I do? and turned to shut the door.
But something about the way that the woman placed her hand on her husband’s shoulder – or maybe it was the careful grace with which she moved – stopped him. Something made him pause, and he remembered all of the times he had slopped food for the animals while a stranger in the foreign land – and how his father had welcomed him back with grace and forgiveness.
The younger son called them back and hurried to catch up with them before they had turned the corner. He showed them to the stable, apologizing profusely for the lack of beds. The woman shook her head slowly as if to say that it wasn’t his fault and her husband led the donkey into the stable. Each of the animals paused as they entered, and quieted themselves in their stalls.
Promising to check on them in the morning, the innkeeper turned to leave yet again, when he heard the woman groan. Her husband caught an arm as she clutched her belly with the other; he asked with great worry if the baby was coming. And the younger brother knew then that she was pregnant.
Hurry, won’t you please, to keep some blankets? asked the husband. And the younger brother hurried back, through the alley and up the stairs past his brother. With urgency he’d never felt before, he dashed back with all of the spare bedding he could find, collecting a servant as he want to aid in the birthing process.
The baby cried innocently and then slept in his mother’s arms, under the protective watch of his father. Creeping away, the younger brother went back to his room, uncovering the finest work he had ever crafted. Intended for a rich farmer a town over, the manger he’d worked on for months would be the finest cradle the inn could provide. With great care, he left it set next to the sleeping mother and child, wondering what miracle of life this was that he’d seen that night.
Unable to sleep, he rose from his bed and walked down the hall of the upper level of the inn. His brother’s light was still on- and gently, he pushed the door open. His brother turned, and gently, the younger son explained what he had done, about the strangers in the stable. Incredulous that he’d let them stay without paying, he stormed after his younger brother to the stable.
Set on evicting the couple from the stable – it wasn’t up to code, and they weren’t paying – he turned the corner and … saw the baby. As baby’s can – as this baby still does – the isolation, the loneliness, the angst washed away. There was something more going on here, something crazy, and perfect, and miraculous. There was something wonderful about this place, where no baby was home alone, where even the homeless had found a place to rest.
Like the shepherds later that night, like the wise men who would follow the star to visit the child, the two brothers recognized something deeper and wider than they’d ever imagined. They experienced the raw, unadulterated love of God, present in the child loved by its parents. Miraculous and glorious, these two found themselves after being lost for so long, and experienced the joy of that first Christmas.
Did these two innkeepers ever reconcile? Was that baby enough? If we can believe in miracles and hearts growing two sizes that day and singing loud to spread Christmas cheer and following the star and our hearts being warmed… then can’t a story about a prodigal son and a miracle baby and a loving God work?
Can’t we believe that we’re called to be more generous, more loving, more forgiving, more like Jesus?
Maybe we got it wrong all along. Maybe the inn was full so those brothers could come together; maybe the inn was full so that they could forgive each other. Maybe this Christmas, you’ll recognize the slights and problems of the next few weeks, the pain and the longing, the celebrations and the excitement, all work together so that we can receive that baby. So that we can be changed.
May there be no room in the inns of our expectations – and may the stable of our hearts, the humble manger of our souls, be the humble sacrifice that we need.