Who were the first visitors traveling to see Jesus? —Sinners…
(CUSA) – “Good news of great joy to all people.” The Holy Family did not need an inn because the Messiah was not a traveler passing through. He is staying.
Jesus is with us and will never leave us. —Ed.
FR. WILLIAM GRIMM—
(UCANews) – The children at a Tokyo parish were preparing a Nativity play and needed a donkey. They decided I was perfect for the role. So, after several rehearsals, I found myself in front of the congregation on my hands and knees with a leash around my neck and Mary sitting on my back.
As rehearsed, Joseph led me to the door of the inn and knocked. As rehearsed, the innkeeper gruffly asked, “What do you want?”.
Joseph said, “My wife is having a baby and we need a place to stay.” The innkeeper said, “No room. Go away.” Then, ad lib, Joseph turned and scolded Mary: “Didn’t I tell you to make reservations?”
Accommodation for the birth of Jesus is an important matter for Luke. In fact, it may be the major point of his account. He was not trying to make his story more poignant or sentimental. He was engaging in an ancient form of Scripture commentary, midrash.
Midrash, too simply put it, is the practice of using the details of a story to bring the rest of Scripture to bear on a point.
Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is an extended midrash, using various details to make his readers or hearers think of parts of Scripture that tell us important things about Jesus. The birth in the stable is one of those details.
If our little Mary had, in fact, called ahead for reservations, how would the story have continued? Joseph would have parked the donkey, checked in, and Jesus would have been born in an inn. Is there any problem with that? There is if you ask yourself, what is an inn?
An inn is a place for travelers, people who are passing through. They do not plan to stay long — just long enough to get some rest, conduct some business and move on.
The fact that there is no place for Jesus in the inn refers to a verse from the prophet Jeremiah: “O hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler turning aside for the night?” It is a prayer that God stay with the people of Israel, that divine care be present for them in times of need.
By saying that “there was no place for them in the inn”, Luke is not talking about overworked hotel staff. Jesus is not born in the inn because he is not “a stranger in the land … a traveler turning aside for the night.”
There was no place in the inn because an inn is not an appropriate place for the birth of Jesus. He is not passing through. He has come among us to remain with us. He is not a traveling stranger, but a native of our world, and he will not move on. He really is Emmanuel, “God With Us.” He’s here to stay.
For Luke, the key detail of the account of Jesus’ birth is the manger. He mentions it three times. It is the detail that guarantees the message of the angel to the shepherds. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” It is important because it tells us why this “God With Us” is with us.
Isaiah talks of how the people of Israel have turned away from God: “The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows its manger; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Luke is telling us (three times!) that the time has come to know God. No matter that we may be as dense as an ox or as stubborn as a donkey, we can now know God because in Jesus, God is as truly present as hay in a barn. (That’s why we put an ox and a donkey in our Christmas crèches.)
What is usually in a manger? Food. Jesus is found in the manger because he is nourishment and strength, “good news of great joy to all the people”.
And who are those people? In Luke, the first announcement of the birth of Jesus is to shepherds. In our Tokyo performance, the shepherds were cute kids. Shepherds in Israel two thousand years ago were a very different group.
Though Scripture spoke of God as Israel’s shepherd and revered the shepherd King David, shepherds in Jesus’ time had a reputation for being thieves, wandering the wilderness with their sheep, and attacking unwary travelers they happened upon in their wanderings.
They had reason to be afraid when “the angel of the Lord stood before them”.
The first people to hear that God is now with us and will never leave us, the first to hear that in Christ God is clearly present as one who will give us life, is a group that most needs that kind of good news. Christ has come for sinners. In other words, Christ has come for me, for you and for all the world.
Jesus will not stay at an inn, but in the manger. He will always be among us and always sustain us sinners. Christmas is not about a baby born long, long ago. It is about Jesus Christ, the Risen Savior who is with us today to be “good news to all the people”.
Maryknoll Fr William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com, based in Tokyo.