Thursday, December 24, 2009
Christmas Morning 2009
Last week I appeared on stage for the first time in thirty years. And I won an award—the St. Anthony’s School Oscar for best supporting actor in the role of an innkeeper.
Of course there was only one nomination in the category. And it wasn’t exactly an Academy Award, although the statuette they gave me was made of solid chocolate.
Being asked to play the innkeeper in the school Christmas pageant was something of an honour, and I took it fairly seriously. I even started looking for my contact lenses, until I realized that since St. Joseph was wearing glasses I might as well too.
I’m not what they call in Hollywood a “method actor,” but I tried to get inside my character. What really was the innkeeper thinking that first Christmas night, when there was no place for them in the inn?
I’m pretty sure I know what St. Joseph was thinking after he’d given up knocking on doors before and decided a stable would have to do. I have a good idea what was going through Mary’s mind—she to whom the angel had spoken.
But what about that innkeeper?
I played the role twice, once at the matinee and once in the evening performance. The first time, I felt the innkeeper was an operator, taking advantage of the Nazareth yokels and offering them spaces no-one else would be willing to pay for.
The second time I felt he was a more sympathetic character, offering the only solution he could possibly think of to the poor couple.
We’ll never know what went through his mind, or what his motive was. The innkeeper exists only in Christmas pageants; he’s not mentioned in the Bible at all. But join me this morning in stepping into his shoes.
How do we feel about that tired couple looking for a place to stay? Do we have a place for them? What about their unborn child? Will we welcome Him?
I’m still wondering why I played the innkeeper once as a good guy and once as a bad guy. Is it because sometimes I welcome Christ and sometimes I don’t?
God himself was coming to earth. And still there was no room for Jesus in Beth¬le¬hem. Sometimes there’s no room for him in our hearts today.
Of course, there were other supporting actors playing roles much more important than the innkeeper—figures who really were there at Bethlehem. I was particularly impressed with the students who played the comical shepherds and the stately wise men.
Those are very important roles because it’s been said “there were only two classes of people who heard the cry that night: Shepherds and Wise Men. Shepherds: those who know that they know nothing. Wise Men: those who know they do not know everything.
Bishop Sheen says that “Only the very simple and the very learned discovered God” when they looked into the stable at Bethlehem. [Fulton J. Sheen, The True Meaning of Christmas.]
Which are we? The simple or the learned? Actually, it doesn’t much matter whether we know nothing, or know that we don’t know everything. What’s important is that we’re not know-it-alls—that we’re ready to learn the messages of Christmas.
It’s not that difficult, because Jesus is a great teacher. Even in the manger He is teaching us. Even before He can speak he has lessons for us.
What are these lessons?
Look first at the manger. It’s beautiful to look at here in the church, decked with cedar boughs and all, but you can’t get away from one thing: Jesus was born poor. Even all those many years ago, only poor people were born with no heating, no nurse—and with animals in the room.
He was born poor so that we would know that happiness doesn’t come from anything money can buy. He was born poor so that we would know what real riches are.
He was born without publicity, with only shepherds to join his family in welcoming his birth. He was born that way so that we would know that it doesn’t matter whether or not we are celebrities; he showed us how beautiful it is to be humble.
And by being born in that humble way, Jesus lets us get close to him—he makes sure there’s nothing to keep us away from him. Sometimes we know someone who lives in a much bigger house than ours, and it makes us nervous to visit them, or to have them visit us. Jesus makes sure we never feel that way about him.
Every detail of the Christmas story shows us how God is at work—if we look into the stable with wonder and awe.
Those shepherds are another detail. Why weren’t reporters the first people to know about the birth of Jesus? Well, you might say there were no reporters, but that’s only partly true. In every society there were people who were listened to.
But shepherds were not that sort of people. To be very honest… they slept in the fields with their sheep and they didn’t take a shower in the morning! Today we might call them “the great unwashed.”
But shepherds were the first to hear about Jesus—and from angels even!
Again, we learn something. Jesus came for everyone: the important people and the not-so-important people. People with class, and people with none, who needed a bath.
There’s almost nothing obvious about that first Christmas, nothing you’d really expect except the angels I suppose. Who were the first people to tell others about Jesus? Why those same unwashed shepherds! Not even the distinguished Three Kings.
God makes himself known to us in everyday people, everyday happenings. So long as we watch and listen, so long as we stay alert—he will let us discover Jesus, with us now, with us always.
We see Jesus in the symbols of Christmas: in the crib, in the beautiful flowers, in the tree which is green with life. We meet him in the Mass, where he becomes truly, really present to us, just as he was in the manger all those years ago.
And we meet him in others—sometimes in people who are lovely and gentle, like Mary was, and sometimes in people who are a bit rough, like the shepherds were.
If we want to know whether we’re really meeting Jesus this Christmas we might ask ourselves: how would I play the innkeeper—friend or foe, operator or rescuer? Can I find a place for Christ?
That question takes us to the central issues of conversion: room for Christ within our hearts, and service to Him in the world beyond.
When we make room for Christ, when we serve Christ in the poor and worried, and when we tell others what it means to know him, we have found Jesus—not wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, but alive in our hearts this Christmas.