In the past 3 weeks, we have entered the lives and emotions of four of the main characters in the Christmas story. We considered the responses of Elizabeth and Zechariah to God’s ‘yes’. We have walked with Mary and with Joseph as they encounter a God that comes too close and changes human plans.
This week, we’ll stop by the Inn in Bethlehem and explore how the life of a businessman was impacted by God. We’ll ask how his response might inform our own actions along the path of Creation spirituality. There is not a lot to go by in the Gospel record. Most of what we might think about the innkeeper comes from tradition and other stories. In fact, all the Bible says is “there was no place for them in the inn.” This implies an innkeeper, but no person is mentioned. The word translated in the KVJ and other translations as ‘inn’ is kataluma which may also be translated as ‘guest chamber’. (The NIV translation says, “there was no guest room available”.) A ‘guest room’ would imply that Mary and Joseph came to stay with family or friends and were turned away.
In my book, Mary, My Love, the couple does indeed come to a relative’s home. Because of the census, the house is full to overflowing with other descendants of David and so there is no place except the barn (cave) for the late arrivers.
So, let’s explore the response of the innkeeper, be they a family member or stranger, on their journey along the paths of Creation Spirituality.
The Via Positiva of Creation Spirituality is related to holy hospitality. The rich, cosmic, eternal hospitality of God who both creates and is within all of creation. Matthew Fox states, “the Creator God is a gracious, an abundant, and a generous host/hostess. She has spread out for our delight a banquet that was 20 billion years in the making. A banquet of rivers and lakes, of rain and of sunshine, of rich earth and of amazing flowers, of handsome trees and of dancing fishes, of contemplative animals and of whistling winds, of dry and wet season, of cold and hot climates…God has declared that this banquet is ‘very good’ and so are we, blessings ourselves, invited to the banquet.”
Born from the values of desert nomads, where hospitality can mean life or death to the traveler, hospitality was deeply ingrained in Jewish life. Remember the story of Abraham greeting his three visitors by preparing a feast for them. (Genesis 18:1-8). The widow of Zarapheth who cared for Elisha (I Kings 17:8-16) was also honoring that long tradition, even though she was not Hebrew.
When “a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…All went to their own towns to be registered.” (Luke 2:2-3) Because many families traced their lineage to King David, many would travel to Bethlehem for this census. This was both an opportunity for hospitality by those in Bethlehem and a burden. I am sure that most residents opened their homes to other relatives and even strangers, as they were able.
Stop and Think: Are you someone who goes overboard for company, or are you more laid back? How does that fit with the extravagant, generous hospitality of God’s creation?
If hospitality is the Via Creativa in the story of Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem, surely the inability to find lodging is the Via Negativa. I like to give the innkeeper/relative the benefit of the doubt. It is extremely possible that every spare room in Bethlehem WAS filled with travelers when Mary and Joseph arrived.
Some commentators hint that it was because Mary was an ‘unwed’ mother, they were turned away by their family. In fact, she was married to Joseph, at least according to Luke. Matthew simply says, “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” As we saw last week, the betrothal was just as binding as the official ceremony.
For the innkeeper/relative telling the young couple that ‘there is no room’ must have been difficult. He had to admit that he had nothing to give in the way of hospitality. He had to admit to being ‘empty’. No one likes to admit that they didn’t plan well enough or ran out of supplies. I think that is why all the traditions and stories have the innkeeper offering the stable as an alternative. As something poor but at least out of the weather. This was one way to offer some form of hospitality.
Stop and Think: Are there ways you provide ‘just enough’ hospitality in some cases? Does hospitality extend to those who are different or in need?
Providing the stable or cave was a way for the innkeeper to save face. It also made him/her part of the new Via Creativa that was happening. The Gospel tells us, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.” Mary gave birth to the Son of God in a humble place. God comes down to our level. In the dust of a stable and the sweat and struggle of a woman giving birth, God becomes Immanuel.
Meister Eckhart asks, “What does God do all day long? God gives birth. From eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.” He goes on to say “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God 1400 years ago and I do not also give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture.” That is our call to action along the Via Creativa.
As we walk the Via Creativa ‘birthing’ God into the hurting and broken world, we become part of the eternal Via Transformativa. We give life, through our lives, to God with and within us. The good news of God made man changes the dynamic of the world.
CS Lewis explains how the Via Negativa can become the Via Transformativa in The Great Divorce, “They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” Lewis uses the same imagery in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Aslan (the great Lion and Christ figure in the book) tells Susan and Lucy, “though the witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little farther back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
Stop and Think: In what ways are you active in the Via Creativa of birthing God into the world?
Consider the words of CS Lewis. What does it imply for your life that ‘agony [will turn into] glory’ and ‘Death itself will start working backward’?
Next week, we'll take a quick look at the Shepherds