December 18, 2007

Mere Hospitality

She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

For many of us, a lifetime of hearing the Christmas story has cast the manger scene of Jesus' birth in a rather sentimental light—perhaps a soft shade of blue. (He was a boy, after all.) We imagine Mother Mary there, some angels fluttering about, and some kindly sheep and asses standing well-behaved in the background. (The latter always made us kids giggle when Rev. Charlie mentioned them from the pulpit.) And on the flank of our mind's eye are herders, sages, and proud papa Joe.

It's all very lovely.

Except that it wasn't. In point of fact, God-With-Us comes to us via a family with too few resources and connections even to secure a decent night's lodging. Both mom and dad have caught a vision of God's special task for them, but they cannot catch of break from anyone with decent shelter. This is the night when eternity steps into time, and no one will let them step across their threshold. Finally, Joseph—certainly dispirited by now—secures a manger for the birth. Phatne in Greek, let's be clear that a "manger" is a rough-hewn feeding trough for domestic animals (see Luke 13:15). Now there's a royal welcome.

It would have been cold, it would have smelled, and it would have been demoralizing for any of us. Sometime later, the gospel writer John will interpret the birth this way: "The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory." That may be true, but his glory was surely not obvious this night—not in a barn, not in a trough. Tabernacle choirs in tall steeples will again sing his praises this Xmas Eve, but on the night when all this Christianity business began, the gushing of proud parents competed with the bleats and blahs of livestock—themselves, I'm sure, simply trying to stay warm. And all this because inn-keepers and hostel-hosts could not find it in themselves to make a little extra room for a wandering family on a dark night.

I am a believer that kindness is the front door to the gospel. I believe that genuine hospitality is an undergirding necessity if people are to see the living Christ in us. I do not believe that being a Christian is simply about being nice to people, as if good manners were enough and Messiah … well, just religious detail. What I do believe is that being nice to people is the ground floor in a rather large house of faith—a building as tall and spacious as the heavens, yet as accessible as a hearty "welcome" offered in Jesus' name. And I believe God is a surprising God, showing up as much in strangers as in sanctuaries. After all, one never knows when a simple moment of hospitality may in fact be a divine appointment (see Luke 24:28-32). Hebrews is none too subtle:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Hebrews 13:2

I blame Jesus' abysmal accoutrements on a lack of local hospitality, but the truth is that the God behind all this messiah-business probably had as much to do with the lean lodging as anyone. It is Luke who serves up this little detail of full-up inns and necessary mangers (2:7), and it will be Luke more than any other gospel writer who will show us how a grown-up Jesus sought out the poor, the rejected, and the outcast. (Try Luke 6:20-26 for a hint of with whom this God likes to hang out.) This theme running through Jesus' ministry makes the sticky, smelly stall of his birth something of a sacrament: a sign of whom this Christ has mostly come to bless (Luke 9:58). How sneaky of God to pop up among us that way. In Emmanuel's homelessness, God sides straightaway with those most in need of safe shelter—literally, spiritually, and otherwise.

I alert you to this theme of hospitality right about now, not so much to introduce a little free-floating guilt into your holiday revelry, but rather to invite your attentiveness in this season to divine appointments that may come knocking on your door. After all, at least half of Biblical hospitality is simply taking notice. We tend to think of mission as taking Christ to other people. More often than not, however, the exalted Christ probably brings his lowly people right to us. We need only to open the way. And hospitality is surely the front door to the kingdom of God, wherein wandering families and wandering faith find a home at last.

Knock, knock. Is there any room?