In our house, we are still in the stage where Christmas is a big deal. With a seven- and a two-year old under foot, there are Christmas presents galore. We try not to go too crazy ourselves, but once you add in faraway grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends, the tree is bombarded with gifts. This year I have been staring at that tree and wondering where in the world all that “stuff” is going to go. The kids already have quite a bit of toys and games. I look around at our full house and wonder where everything will fit.
That is why I was excited when a friend of mine shared a great new find this year. Called a “Christmas Sack,” the large cloth bag is meant to filled with toys, games, or clothing the children (and adults!) no longer need and would like to share with someone who does. They fill up the bag before Christmas, and put the bag by the tree on Christmas Eve. The next morning, the bag is empty, and in the bag’s place are new things for the kids to enjoy. The idea was brilliant, and reminded me of an old adage another parent had once given me – for everything that comes in, something must go out. What I love about the idea of that bag is the bag makes room – makes room for the house to not feel cluttered, makes room for the kids to play and really enjoy their new things, and makes room for whatever might come. I want our children to grow up in a home where there is that kind of room.
Mary and Joseph run into a similar problem on that fateful night over two thousand years ago. Their problem is not so much houses overrun with presents. Their problem is homes and guesthouses overrun with people. The tyranny of living under the Roman thumb is that the Roman emperor is always looking for ways to squeeze the people – to live in prosperity no matter whether others suffer or not. In our story tonight, the emperor has gone to extremes – making people return to hometowns to be registered. He wants to make sure he has not missed any opportunities to tax his people, and so he degradingly corrals people into towns to count them like animals. By the time Mary and Joseph roll into town, all the homes of their relatives and friends are full – even the guestrooms are full.[i] There is no room for them. No space has been left over for hospitality. No room has been left for whatever might come.
And so, in the midst of a dehumanizing governmental reign, at the tail end of an already scandalous marriage and pregnancy, Mary and Joseph are squeezed into the section of a home that is reserved for animals. Alone, denigrated, shamed, and weary, they bring into this world a savior for people just like them – a savior for the poor, oppressed, marginalized, dehumanized, and victimized. In a vulnerable little package arrives the Godhead, in the most vulnerable of situations, to be a light to all who are vulnerable. What should have been a party of epic proportions becomes a gathering of misfits, who are the only ones who get to see the miracle of Christ’s birth.
As I have been thinking about how there was no room for the Holy Family, I have wondered what it would have been like for someone to make room for this vulnerable family. Had someone, anyone, said yes to Mary and Joseph, imagine the wonder they could have experienced that night. Might they have seen something different in this Christ Child? Might they have been awake when the shepherds came and heard their tale? Might they have been given first row seats to the most holy of nights? I wonder if one of the reasons that no one makes room that night is that no one is ready for the Messiah. In the midst of their own travel and cramped accommodations, the sense of persecution by their government, and perhaps a loss of hope about what could be, no one makes room for the possibility of a Messiah who can make things different. No one makes room for whatever might come.
Of course, I am not sure any of us is prepared to make room for Jesus tonight either. I do not know about you, but I have been running to the store all week because my brain is so scattered that I keep forgetting small things like milk, and worrying that we will run out when the stores are closed. I keep remembering one more person I wanted to send a greeting to or for whom I wanted get a gift. A week ago, I gave up on getting out my Christmas cards (which I decided could be Epiphany cards to give myself a break). When you are running at full speed, tending to the mundane of life, professional or familial obligations, and making sure you have laundered enough clothing, we can easily forget to make room for Jesus in our lives.
This week I was reading about a custom in Russia. On the eve of Christmas, Christians fast all day until the first star appears that night. Of course, fasting until the first star reminds them of the star that led the magi to Bethlehem. But the custom is also meant to be a fast for the soul – as one monk puts it, to “abstain from bad or useless thoughts and speech, and await in silence and composure the savior who is coming to us.”[ii] Truthfully, I cannot imagine anyone fasting and staying silent all day on Christmas Eve, but the idea is certainly intriguing. The physical fasting alone might make us savor our Christmas meals a bit more. But the spiritual fasting might be just what we need in these days of noise, suffering, and chaos – a quieting of the soul to make room for the voice of Christ, and whatever else might come.
Now, the first star has most certainly appeared by now. But you have done an incredible thing by coming here tonight. In some ways, this service is your mini-fast. You chose to take a break in the family festivities, the hubbub of preparations, and the noise of life to come to church. You have gathered with a community of people who have made that same choice. And we certainly will not be breaking our fast until we eat the holy meal. I invite you to use this special time that you have chosen to set apart as a time to take in a deep breath, to savor the quiet of this night, and to invite Jesus in – to either help you make room in your heart for him, or to invite Jesus in to the room you have already made.
The gift of this service tonight is to help you create that room and give you eyes to see what God is up to when you create space. I often find that when I create room for Jesus, I remember how fortunate I am to have family, friends, and food, and then can pray for those who lack those things. When I create room for Jesus, I can look around my community and see Marys and Josephs all around me who need a little hand – a literal room, or at least my compassion and grace. When I create room for Jesus, I see all the tiny interruptions in my day not as hurdles to accomplishing tasks, but as moments with Jesus as each person reveals to me a facet of Jesus for which I had not been listening or looking. I look forward to hearing what you do with the room you create for Jesus tonight and for whatever else might come.
[i] Douglas R.A. Hare, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 121.
[ii][ii] A monk of the Easter Church, “Christmas Eve,” A Christmas Sourcebook, Mary Ann Simcoe, ed. (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1984), 13.