She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Unfit to Be Seen
Joseph and Mary have worked through their issues concerning her pregnancy. Mary’s family—especially her cousins, Elizabeth and Zechariah—fully support her. Joseph’s family is on-board, too, just as the angel promised. The couple has yet to marry, perhaps to offset potential confusion about the Christ Child’s paternity. Like all expectant parents, they mark the days remaining before Mary gives birth. Then Caesar decides to tally his empire and see who comes from where. Joseph’s trip to his hometown of Bethlehem falls exactly when the Baby’s due. He can’t leave Mary in Nazareth. Besides, as his wife-to-be, she legally must register with him. The couple sets out on its four-day journey.
The word “bedlam” derives from “Bethlehem” to evoke the chaotic overcrowding Mary and Joseph found on arrival. We envision bedlam because the Bible says they couldn’t get a hotel room. But let’s think this through. Why was housing a problem if Joseph had local relatives to put them up? Let’s run another scenario. They get to Bethlehem and, first thing, go to the census bureau. The registrar lists them as married, but Joseph corrects him, being honest and less wary of their circumstances after their families’ acceptance. The couple becomes the talk of the town. As they proceed to the home where Joseph assumes they’ll stay, they draw disapproving stares. His cousin explains he’ll be shamed if he hosts an unwed pregnant couple. Joseph tries a nearby inn, whose owner is more direct. They’re unfit to be seen in his fine establishment. Joseph pleads for Mary’s sake while smug guests eavesdrop. The innkeeper whispers, “There’s a barn out back where you can sleep provided no one knows you’re there.”
The Christ we carry inside us deserves the finest treatment, yet prejudice and self-righteousness often leave us stuck with straw. People we expect to welcome us as always turn us away. They tactfully appeal to our understanding that befriending us will cost them friends and respect. Others are less gracious. It’s less about them being seen with us as our being seen with them. We’re not worthy of their company. Then there are those who haven’t the heart to reject us outright or the nerve to embrace us openly. They’ll let us hang around, as long we stay out of sight. Every GLBT person has likely experienced all of these reactions, as well as numerous other variations. Lest we get caught up in misreading the Nativity as a metaphor for homophobia, however, we should view it as a parable for all believers. Sincere followers of Jesus quickly learn people and places once open to them quickly run out of room. If we think faith increases popularity and never offends, revisiting Bethlehem snaps us back to reality. And while it’s typical around this time of year to disdain the Holy Family’s inhospitable treatment, it’s also good to recall Jesus spent much of His life looking for somewhere to sleep. He informed one aspiring disciple that being shoved aside came with following Him: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8.20)
Talk like that didn’t help recruitment, but it was honest. Lousy accommodations and transient friendships were a way of life for Jesus, from His manger crib to His borrowed tomb. Though He deserved better, He didn’t resent doing with less, knowing He’d be vindicated in the end. Whether packed houses or patent hostility is why Jesus was born in a stable, you’ve got to love how the story ends. God responds to Joseph and Mary being tossed around by tossing a star through space to transform their dank, dismal surroundings into a warm, incandescent nursery. And if, just if, social stigmatization accounts for scuttling them out of sight, God ensures their significance to Him—and the Gift they brought into the world—won’t be ignored.
At some time or other, we all end up in Bedlam, surrounded by chaos and crowds incapable of overcoming their own fears and hatred to believe God’s given us gifts for their benefit. Deserving better doesn’t excuse resentment at doing with less. As Proverbs 18.16 tells us, “A gift opens the way for the giver and ushers him into the presence of the great.” When we’re stuck with straw, instead of looking at how we’ve been mistreated, let's start seeing stars.
Some think we're unfit to be seen and try to hide us from view, but God's light will shine on us in the end.
(Tomorrow: A Zealous God)