It was dark. Rainy. Cold. I’d been in the car for about 12 hours. Alone. Intermittent radio signal through the West Virginia Mountains, nothing but wheezing preachers and country (not the good kind) for much of Virginia, over an HOUR sitting still on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge because i lacked the foresight to plan around rush hour. Now I was within a mile of my friend’s house, i just knew that i had to be–but i’d been in circles for about 20 minutes, unable to read road signs through the dark and rain. This was before GPS kids…how did we ever live without those smug British voices occupying the front seat with us?? I can harken back to many a trip that would have been made simpler and shorter with some sort of navigation device at my disposal. But, well, what fun would that have been?
It was the week of Thanksgiving. I was going to spend a few days with my bff from college, then she was going to ride back to KY with me to visit her family. We were both young and single, working in crummy jobs while working toward the “whatever’s next” that hangs over one’s head in the early 20’s. She was in law school, I was getting ready to start seminary–though, in retrospect, I may not have known it yet. After a 12-hour haul from Lexington to Chesapeake, I was exhausted from not only the drive, but from my life in general. Out there on the lonely road, you never know what sort of baggage–and i don’t mean samsonite–will make its way into your car.
So here i was, practically circling her block but so unsure of where to exit, and where to make up for the wrong turn (or 2) I’d taken. At some point i think i called her (yes, i did have a cell phone. however, i’m pretty sure it did not have voice command or speed dial…) and she talked me, finally, to the right turn.
From which point I saw her house at once. Not because i could see house numbers or street names (I couldn’t) but because it glowed from within. And not just in a “somebody’s home with the tv on” kind of way, but in a “my friend lives there!” kind of way. I should explain that this is the friend whose dorm room always looked like a Martha Stewart cover, who could make Southern Living desserts in an efficiency kitchenette, and who, even now, knows how to put a thousand little thoughtful details into any gift or occasion. So in that gloomy, chilly, windy, rainy, never-ending darkness, her house was light and warmth. Even without directions (which i couldnt see anyway) i would have known from a mile away that Rachel lived there.
The glow from inside came not only from the presence of a kindred soul–there were some literal things going on, too. Like a Christmas tree–put up early just for my visit, because that year, we were both feeling the “need a little Christmas” thing. There were several warm and homey scented candles. The smell of something cooking. Strains of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack hanging in the blessed space between it all. I was overjoyed, comforted, and completely at peace with all the world. Basically, it was Christmas. In November.
The simple grace of that moment is what we are after, in all the running and doing and frenzy that can overwhelm us in this season. With every gift we buy, every light we hang, every party we throw together, we seek to create a tableau of warmth and hope for the people we love. A sanctuary to light up the night.
As we move into week 4 of Advent, i think of Mary and Joseph travelling through a dark, cold desert at night. Mary, pregnant and on a donkey, for heaven’s sake. I can scarcely imagine the sciatica. I think of what a welcome haven a home like Rachel’s would have been–warmth, music, food, friends–but instead, as we know, there was no room for them.
I always take a moment at this point in the Christmas story to stick up for the inn keeper–perhaps because i am married to one myself–because our popular renditions of the nativity make him out to be such a Grinch. “How could he not have given a room to the poor pregnant woman!?” we lament. “And carrying the messiah at that!?” Which is where i, the wife of the hotel manager, like to point out that hey–if there’s no room, there’s no room. It would be just as inhospitable to kick out one of the other weary travelers and send them to the Best Western across the street. This is peak season folks. Everybody’s on their own.
But you know… the inn keeper is kind of like the third wise man. He’s not in scripture, we just make him up sometimes to round out the story. All Luke says is “there was no room at the inn.” There’s no Mr. Potter-esque management guy turning them away. In fact, an “inn” in those days would not have been a Marriott, exactly. Not even a Motel 6! (They, at least, will keep the light on for you). No, the sort of inn that the holy family passed by was more of a shelter. Like a ramada (not to be confused with The Ramada) over a state park picnic table. A small nook to keep the wind off.
So could it be, perhaps, that the stable was the warmer welcome? Could it be that these young parents found some blessed quiet and warmth away from the masses that were gathering for the census?
Maybe. Even so, this is still a poor person’s story. All of Luke is a poor person’s gospel. It is the place where God uses a young girl of no upbringing to usher the holy into the world. Where shepherds are the first to share good news. Where animals are present at the birth of Jesus, because really, he came into the midst of real life and work; not into a perfect world, but a world hurting and just waiting for the lights to come on.
The fictional inn-keeper, with his full house and his eye on a profit…well, he’s not fictional. He’s not an ogre, either. He’s us. Forgetting that Jesus came for the poor and downtrod; feeling like Christmas is something we can create for ourselves; rushing to turn a profit in this “peak season” instead of slowing down to experience it. He’s us, about a jillion years ago, just going about his business in harmless fashion–a breath away from a miracle, and missing the whole thing.
To miss the dust, the cold, the lonliness at the edges of the nativity story, is to miss the truth of salvation: that we cannot create it for ourselves, nor is it reserved for those who can afford the biggest toys. Those with the least under the tree are getting the best of this gift. The last shall be first, and all that jazz.
But even if we count ourselves among the “haves,” Christmas comes not a moment too soon. We are, all of us, moving through the dark desert chill, or the dark mountain snow, or the dark coastal rain. Point is, it’s dark. It’s lonesome. We can’t see what’s next and we’re waiting for a glimpse of light and hope; a place that promises someone is waiting up for us, with good things in store. Someone has kept a light on for us, just like Motel 6. We can breathe easier now.
The point is, we must prepare a place for all this to go down. To welcome our friends and loved ones to our homes, to welcome neighbors into our places of worship; to welcome the poor and the lonely to a place that promises good things.
In all the preparations, some people have the knack for getting all the little details right (like Rachel and Martha Stewart) and some of us, well, we don’t quite get it (like me and Charlie Brown). But anyone can light a candle against the chill. Anyone can open a door. To pull off that comforting Christmass-y glow, you don’t need Better Homes and Gardens. You don’t need that new table from Pottery Barn, the one that seats up to 20 people…what you need is a table of radical inclusion, a place of abundant grace and good news for all who come seeking. How easy it would be to miss them, in all the hurry! We are keepers of this good news, this place of warmth and light. It may not be Rachel’s house, but it is ours to open, and welcome in the stranger.
questions for reflection and discussion:
-When have you been blessed by an abundant welcome? Who made you feel like you were important, expected, and celebrated?
-How can we share this kind of welcome with friends and strangers in this season?
-What are some of the spiritual preparations that enable us to welcome Christ? What is the connection between welcoming Jesus and welcoming ‘other?’