As the annual pageant unfolds, a holy birth is copied not on canvas but on church carpet.
In cheerful defiance of the Biblical account, all the Christmas characters are assembled on chancel steps. White cherubim with arms folded prayerfully, sneaking a wave at beaming parents. Tea-towelled shepherds with staffs borrowed from grandpa’s cane collection. Magi with cotton beards and shoeboxes covered in tin foil. Mary draped in a blanket with Joseph hovering in his bathrobe of many colours.
Then there’s the much-maligned Innkeeper. Though never named in the Biblical cast of characters, Bethlehem’s harried Innkeeper is often portrayed as the quintessential cantankerous old grump; a Walter Matthau-style entrepreneur with no vacancy for a blessed duo, save for a stable.
We ought to cut the hotel manager some slack.
There may have been a spare chamber but how was he to know the role or interpret the plight of the weary yokels — this round-faced pregnant peasant and her dour, dogged companion? Without his own visit from angel Gabriel, how was he to know who needed to be born? Appearances can be deceiving.
Perhaps he didn’t want his executive suite converted into a labour room. The young lass was so great with child that the delivery appeared immanent. Would her screams offend the tender ears of other guests? Were there liability issues if the delivery went awry?
Maybe there actually wasn’t room, even in his commodious establishment. Bethlehem was teeming with statistics for Caesar’s census, jostling with one another like ships in search of a harbour. Mary and Joseph arrived late, they had no reservations with the innkeeper and the innkeeper had no reservations turning them away.
But he didn’t turn them away completely. He didn’t force Mary and Joseph to curl up in a doorway or sleep over a warm grate on the sidewalk. As all who know the story know, the holy couple was given a room, albeit crude and bare. No Internet connection or coffee maker. No fresh sheets turned down with the next day’s weather report, a discreet chocolate and towel twisted into the shape of a peacock resting near the pillows. It was room shared with animals and the only thing to use for a cradle was the feedbox.
But it was room nevertheless.
Perhaps in the mind of the Innkeeper there was as good chance as any that even in a barn, chance midwifery and hot water and swaddling would mean that the baby would be fine.
Even though he wouldn’t or couldn’t roll out a red carpet for the Christ, I wouldn’t want the stern Innkeeper or his Inn to be blacklisted forever. He found room for the Child which is the intent of all Christians.
As the One born that night later pointed out, foxes have holes and birds have nests. But Bethlehem’s fictitious Innkeeper, bless him, found a place for mystery to assume anatomy.
And, as Phillips Brooks reminded us in his rhyme which became a beloved carol about the famous night in Bethlehem, “where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
Bob Ripley is a columnist and minister in London, Ontario.