A royal child is born. But where you’d expect a royal welcoming, you find no fanfare. There were no crowds waiting outside a castle for the birth announcement. In the crowded town of Bethlehem, no one was sacrificing their place in a warm house to make space for an honored guest. There is no room for this child. And so, surrounded by sheep, cows, and donkeys the King of Kings was laid into a feeding trough filled with hay.
One Bible commentator writes, “What the inhabitants of Bethlehem did in their ignorance is done by many today in willful indifference – they refuse to make room for the Son of God. They give no place to Him in their feelings, their affections, their thoughts, their views of life, their wishes, their decisions, their actions, or their daily conduct. And they thus deny themselves the greatest privilege of all and incur the greatest loss to their lives.”[i]
There’s a natural tendency to elevate ourselves above the people in the text. Wanting to be hospitable and open to Jesus, we assure ourselves we would have acted differently. We would have recognized God’s son among us. Always seeing ourselves as the astute ones, surely we would have recognized the signs: a young woman on a donkey, the favored town of Bethlehem, the star in the sky, even the words of the shepherd – we would have understood what was going on, and, good folk that we are, we would have made room for Jesus.
Asking ourselves if we would have made room for Jesus is not a hypothetical exercise. We don’t have to imagine if we would make the necessary arrangements to accommodate the Lord of Lords on that night long ago. Instead, we can examine our lives to see if the room he asks for is something we are willing to give. Today. As Catholic writer Dorothy Day wrote, “Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.”[ii]
One place to look is in our hearts. Paul writes that it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him. United to Christ, our innermost being belongs to him. Our hopes and dreams, our purpose and identity, our thoughts and feelings are wed to Jesus. Consequently, we ought to subject ourselves to regular self-examination to ensure there is room for Christ in our hearts.
Are my dreams pushing out the dreams that Christ has for me? Is my self-determined identity more prominent in my mind than my identity in Jesus? Are my thoughts and the renewing of my mind in line with the teachings of Christ? These are areas we must vigilantly review in effort to make room for Jesus.
The temptation is to focus. on ourselves. We must resist that natural tendency and remember that following Jesus calls us towards radical hospitality. We find Jesus not just in the space of our inner lives, but in the face of every stranger we meet.
Hebrews 13:2 reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Jesus tells us that when he separates the sheep and the goat he will do so based on who gave the hungry something to eat, the thirsty something to drink, who invited the stranger in, who clothed the naked, looked after the sick, and visited the imprisoned. For when we take care of the least of these, we do so for Christ himself.
Imagine you’re home at night. The kids put to bed. The dishes washed and drying on a towel by the sink. You’ve settled on to the couch with a cup of tea or maybe a glass of wine; The Crown is playing on tv or maybe you’re reading a novel. There’s a knock at the door. You flip on the exterior porch light and open the door to a young, pregnant woman. She says that she’s tired from travel, without money, friends or relatives and in need of a place to stay. What do you do?
Again Dorothy Day says, “But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that [Jesus] speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers and suburban housewives that he gives. it is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.”
One cannot deny the Christian duty of hospitality. Stories modeling God’s desired posture towards the stranger fill our sacred texts.
The fear instigated by such radical hospitality requires brutal honesty. We do not think so highly of strangers. We may want to fulfill our duties to the poor, lonely, and homeless, but we do not think of them highly enough to overcome our palpable fear. Where the Bible tells us we may entertain angels, we say, “Hide your money. Lock your doors. Protect your family.” Those who are not one of us make us nervous. This nervousness leads to hostility. Priest Henri Nouwen’s words are as relevant as ever: “We can say that during the last year strangers have become more and more subject to hostility than to hospitality.”[iii]
There’s a temptation to justify ourselves saying, “But Jesus, the world is different today.” Which is true. The world is different in many ways. But human nature is not. The fears we have about strangers existed back when our texts were inspired because violence, theft, and whatever other anxieties we can name about strangers are not inventions of the modern era. So we’re left wondering what we believe more: Are strangers to be feared or are strangers potential angels?
Paying attention to how the stories of the Old and New Testament portray strangers may assuage some of our fears. Again, Nouwen says, “Strangers come carrying gifts waiting to be revealed to the host. When Abraham received the three strangers at Mamre and offered them water and food, they revealed themselves as the Lord announcing that his barren wife, Sarah, would give birth to a son. When the widow of Zarephath offered food and shelter to Elijah, he revealed himself as a man of God and offered her an abundance of oil and food, even raising her son from the dead. When the travelers to Emmaus invited in the stranger they met along the road, he broke bread and they found themselves in the presence of the resurrected Christ.”
Not every stranger needs to be welcomed into our house. Instead, the Bible encourages a particular posture toward our fellow human being which can be expressed in a variety of ways. How we treat co-workers who look different than us; how we think about those among us who have different customs and speak different languages, our beliefs about immigration, the judgements we make about those in socio-economic categories below and above us. Our attitudes towards other human beings reflect our willingness to make room for Jesus.
This is the joy of Christmas. The unexpected gift of Jesus. This stranger who was unrecognized among us. But here’s the twist. The was no room for Jesus, yet he makes room for you. Why all this emphasis on hospitality to the stranger? “We love because Christ first loved us.” While estranged from God, Christ become the stranger so we might become the familiar. Jesus makes room for us and invites us to join him in the house he is preparing.
So, yes, let us ask ourselves if we’ve made room for Jesus. Let us examine our lives and make room for Jesus as we practice radical hospitality. For that is how we imitate Christ our Lord. But let us never wonder if Christ has room for us.
[i]Geldenhuys, J.Norval, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Marshall, Morgan &Scott, 1971, Pg 102
[ii] Dorothy Day quotes are from her contribution to Watch for the Light
[iii] Nouwen quotes are from Reaching Out