I realized recently that it’s been a while since I got this spiritual on my blog. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to or haven’t tried. I think a lot of the reason is that I’ve been learning a lot about how spirituality is not simply one aspect of ourselves but something that is a part of everything we do. Especially creativity. So, in talking about that, I wasn’t forgetting my spirituality. Nevertheless, there are times to talk about it specifically.
‘Tis the season, after all. And while it means many things to many people, secular and sacred, and, as such, I would never want to dictate what it ought to mean to you, I do have some thoughts I’d like to share with you about the specific story that, whatever your view of the holidays, lies at the heart of it all.
The Nativity story is so well known that it seems silly to recount it here in detail. Even if you’ve never set foot in a church, you probably are at least aware of the highlights.
But one aspect of it has been stuck in my brain this season, because I noticed something about it that I hadn’t before.
Like I said, we all know it. Mary. Joseph. Jesus. Born in a manger. Because there was no room in the inn.
And it was that part that struck me this year, as it never has before. One of those things that is so simple and so obvious that you miss it. I realized there is another half to that phrase.
There was no room in the inn, but there was room in the barn.
This may seem like an arbitrary distinction, but it’s one I’ve come to realize carries significance. We tend to focus on the negative side of that.
“There was no room in the inn.” With an understood, “How sad”, following it.
It’s an admonition to be more open and less insular in our theology. (How often Christians, in particular, are driven to do this, I’ll let someone else comment on.) But there’s a positive aspect I think we miss. I know I’ve missed it for my entire life.
There was room in the barn. There was room in the manger. There wasn’t room where there was supposed to be room, in the inn, the place built for lodging. That’s not where they found room. Instead they found it some place you wouldn’t normally think of, a place not really built for humans to sleep in, a place that was certainly not ideal for childbirth.
And, if you think about it, isn’t that exactly how the rest of the story goes?
Immanuel, the Child, is born in the last place, in the last way, anyone would expect. Not a palace, but a cave. Not witnessed by priests, but by shepherds. Not in a holy site, but in a nothing town in a nothing country. Not even in a real bed, a real crib. A manger, a feeding trough.
Unexpected is the name of the game in this story, and that may be the most important lesson of all.
The most important things end up being where we least expect them.
There was no room in the inn, but there was room in the barn. This should affect our thinking.
Because we are living in a world where a lot of people think the most important things are found in important places, that the best people only come from certain backgrounds, only look a certain way, and those are the only people we should trust with things like “power”. The “way things have always been” is a strong force.
But in the face of all that, there’s this story, which stands to remind us, if nothing else, that good things come in small packages, and that if you want to find the thing that will change the world, stop looking in the places the world values.
It doesn’t take a theology degree to see that every aspect of this story is meant to challenge our preconceptions about what the story ought to be. That was actually one of the arguments C.S. Lewis raised in defense of Christianity: it is a story unlike what you would expect.
Because we would expect important things to happen to important people in important positions living in important places. But none of that happens in this story. The setting, the audience, the participants, the location, even the bed is nothing to write home about. And yet, precisely because they are nothing to write home about, they become part of the most important thing that ever happened.
The “way things have always been” says this wasn’t the way to do it, but this was something that had never happened before, so why should it be the way we would expect it to?
The lesson here, I hope, is obvious, but I’ll say it anyway.
The things that the world values are not the things that will change it. Power, money, all the places we would normally think to look for true greatness and influence are the last places we are likely to find it. There’s no room for it there.
And we are in desperate need of that kind of change, of something the world has never seen before, because we have seen the world and it is ugly and scary. This year has proven that many times over. We keep returning to the same modes of thought: power, wealth, fear, hate; and we wonder why they aren’t solving our problems.
"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein
There is no room in that kind of thinking for the right answer, that’s why we have to look for where there is room.
Where we wouldn’t expect it.
We live in a world where refugee and immigrant are still dirty words, where we are suspicious of people for simply speaking another language, and we wonder why we can't find any good in the world. The answer is simple: we haven't been looking for where it is.
God is a god of the margins. This story illustrates that.
Where people would expect God to be, God is not. God is in the last place they would expect, a place that, to one kind of theology, would seem below God. But it is not. God shows us that. Moreover, I think the story tells us that God doesn’t simply choose these places, God values these places. God eschews the places of worldly power. The Nativity story rejects them entirely. The audience is not important enough. The location is unknown. The timing is all wrong. By the standards of that world, and ours, it fails as a momentous event.
And that’s the point. It’s a story that isn’t how we would expect. That’s how we know it’s a miracle.
God lives in the margins. That’s what the Nativity story tells us, if we are willing to listen to it.
In the coming year, we are going to have ample reasons to look for hope. I pray we start looking for where it already is.
Because there is room for it there, and there is room for us as well.