By REV. LUNA DINGAYAN
“She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger —there was no room for them to stay in the inn. — Luke 2:7
No room in the inn
Of all the Gospel writers, Luke is apparently the most down-to-earth in terms of describing the events and narrating the whole story of Jesus’ birth (cf. Luke 2:1-21). It begins with the journey of a poor couple, Mary and Joseph, who, according to the Biblical records, were not officially married at that time. They were on their way to Bethlehem from their own hometown of Nazareth to fulfill an imperial decree that all people should register not for election purposes (election at that time were not necessary), but for taxation purposes.
Mary at that time was due to deliver and we can surmise that the couple was beset by all kinds of anxieties. We can just imagine how long, hard and tedious their trip was, considering they had only one small donkey with which Mary and their belongings could be transported to Bethlehem. Of course, we could reserve more sympathy for Joseph, who perhaps could not afford even a brief sleep during the journey. Apparently, it was a very difficult journey.
When the couple at last arrived in Bethlehem, all hotels and inns were fully booked apparently and there was no other place open to them except a smelly cowshed not too far from the main streets. Perhaps, for reasons of exhaustion, Mary prematurely delivered the child whom she wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.
What happened to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem was similar to the experience of the Aetas in Zambales some years back before the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. Sr. Carmen of the Carmelite Order brought to Manila a group of Aetas to have some sort of an exposure to the life in the city. Part of their itinerary was to visit the Manila Hotel. Unfortunately, when they were already there in front of the Hotel, the authorities would not allow them to come in. It was not because there was no room for them in the Hotel; it was simply because they were Aetas who were not properly dressed according to the hotel standards. The rejection of the Aetas was a social rejection, indeed.
We are more inclined to believe that this was the same thing that happened to Mary and Joseph. Perhaps, there were many rooms in the hotels and inns in Bethlehem at that time, but definitely these were not meant for a poor couple, like Mary and Joseph from Nazareth in the province of Galilee, a rebel-infested area. Jesus’ birth points to us the reality of social rejection even in our own society today. I’m sure if an unknown couple coming from a rebel-infested area today knocked at our door in the middle of the night, we might also think twice before we would give them a room.
But our text is saying to us that God in Christ Jesus cares for those who are socially rejected, for Jesus himself in his birth suffered the same fate.
Human hands in God’s redemption
All forms of danger attended Jesus’ birth. Well, today a newly born infant may have a similar experience of being in danger despite all available sophisticated medical equipment, aseptic labor rooms, prenatal care, postnatal care, immunization, and others. Despite all these precautions, any child’s life can still be in critical condition. And to think, that the infant Jesus was born in the absence of all these. He was born in a stinky cowshed without any attending physician, a nurse or a midwife – only helpless Joseph whose skill was carpentry. The night was so cold and the stall had neither thick walls nor a fireplace that could protect and warm them.
But worst of all, the local tyrant, King Herod, whom we know to be infamous for his lust for power, had just ordered a company of his soldiers to round up the whole territory upon learning from the three wise men from the East that a child had been born to be king of the Jews. Consequently, it was a gruesome massacre of infants that took place on the first Christmas Eve. Apparently, having heard of such a ruthless order, Mary and Joseph fled elsewhere for the life of their own son. The first Christmas was a terrible nightmare, indeed.
Theologically, these were the dangers involved in the self-emptying act of God. This is what we mean when we speak of the theology of the incarnation. From the manger of Bethlehem to the cross of Golgotha was a long road of a dangerous journey for Jesus, the Son of the Living God. Yet, despite all such dangers, God took the risk.
The life of Jesus was threatened at all points. But the striking fact remains that the chance of his survival, his safety and his victory was largely dependent on one factor, and that is no other than the simple parental care of Mary and Joseph. What impresses us most is the fact that God, so powerful and so wise, literally entrusted the life of Jesus His Son into the care of human hands. It is a lovely thing to note that on the first Christmas Eve, God revealed to us the fact that the human hands, despite its many potentials for betrayals, are still worthy of divine trust and confidence. That despite the bloodshed, the atrocities and the deep-seated sorrows caused by human hands, they can still be part of God’s redemptive act in history.
This Christmas, there is only one question we all have to answer: Do we have genuine care for others around us that can make our hands worthy of God’s trust and confidence? Do we have enough virtues within us so that God would have reasons to entrust the lives of those in danger into our hands? If we can take this to heart, then the real spirit of Christmas can be ours, indeed.
Keeping watch over the flock
The narrative continues. There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then, suddenly an angel said, “Don’t be afraid, for I am bringing you good news of a great joy which will be to all people. This day your Savior is born in the town of David and you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger”(vs.10-12).
We may not have a scientific explanation for the sudden appearance of the angel, but we know why the shepherds were out there in the open fields that night. The poor shepherds were there, not only because it was their job to be there, but also because it was their home. Like Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds had no room for them in the inn, so to speak. The shepherds were among the lowest classes of people in Ancient Palestine. They were in fact considered social outcasts. Hence, they also experienced social rejection, because they were unschooled, uneducated field workers, who could not read the law and therefore not capable of fulfilling it.
In those days, those who were not capable of fulfilling the letters of the Jewish Law were not considered fortunate enough to deserve God’s favor. Yet, the shepherds were among the first to receive the good news of the Messiah’s birth – neither the mighty Ceasar nor the powerful Herod! Was it not Jesus himself who said that in the Kingdom of God, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”? (Lk.13:30). The shepherds were not only the first to have a foretaste of God’s Kingdom, but also the first to deserve the blessings and joy of the Christmas message.
The shepherds were in the fields in the middle of the night, keeping watch over their flock, because night was the most critical hour for the sheep. It was a time when wolves come to kill and to destroy. Certainly, even today, at night is the most critical period. It is during nighttime when robbers come to steal. It is at night when any careless traveler may stumble in the dark.
And so, Jesus was born in the darkness of the night. In a very real sense, Jesus was born amidst the darkness of world history. It was a dark night in the history of his people, for they were suffering under Roman domination.
Today, we also celebrate Jesus’ birth amidst the darkness of our history. Wars and rumors of wars continue to terrorize and create anxieties in our hearts and minds. Like the shepherds of the field, do we not also deserve to receive the joy and comfort of the Christmas spirit? For what really is the church, but the modern shepherd of the field keeping watch over the flock by night!
Throughout the ages, the church is called to make known its presence in the field where human struggles are found. It is in the field where we face the crossroad of danger and promise, of suffering and hope. It is right there in the field where heroism and victory can be ours. The church sanctuary may provide us warm and protective walls, but the deepest and most real questions of life are not always encountered in the hallowed halls of the sanctuary. The true challenges of life and history are often found in the field, for that is where we keep watch over the flock by night.
In this dark moment of human history, there is no better place to celebrate Jesus’ birth, no better place where the good news is proclaimed in sounds of joy, than in the field, where the shepherds keep watch over the flock by night, where the angel of the Lord appeared with the message of joy and hope.
We may not have the resources to fulfill our material wishes this Christmas season, but if our hearts can beat with genuine love and care for those outside the warm and protective walls of our homes and church sanctuaries, then and only then can we say in all sincerity, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!” Amen. # nordis.net