The Innkeeper: Ruminations for Christmas Eve

Sometimes the tiniest act of kindness can save a life. It might even transform the world. I’m thinking of some of the players in the first Christmas story. They’re given no credit in the cast of characters, but you know they were there. Take the innkeeper, for example. He’s not even mentioned in the scene where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a feeding trough because there was no place in the inn (Luke 2:7), but you know if there was an inn, there was an innkeeper.

Poet, scripture translator, and religious scholar Stephen Mitchell (in The First Christmas: A Story of New Beginnings) considered the situation in that disrupted, chaotic season as travelers from all over the country arrived for the Roman census, and he described the innkeeper and his encounter with the Holy Family this way: “Given all his pressing obligations, he felt tempted to shoo the young couple away. He could do only so much . . . . He was only a decent man trying to do his best in a situation that would have tested the patience of Job. No, they would have to be on their way. He was about to say this when something stopped him.”

As the innkeeper was about to return to his busy routine, as Mitchell imagined it, he looked into Joseph’s eyes, and something stopped him. “He felt as though a current of sympathy had somehow established itself between them. He was embarrassed by this; it was bad business practice. But he had to acknowledge it. A decision had been made somewhere inside him – in spite of him or without his conscious assent. They could stay.”

Reason told the innkeeper to turn the couple away. He wasn’t God, after all; he could do only so much with his limited resources, and there was literally no room in the inn. But whatever it was that stirred in him – sympathy, conscience, a memory from his own past – it made him think of an empty stall in his cattle shed, and he made room for the couple there. The rest, as they say, is history, and it’s history writ large. Anything I say about the innkeeper is pure speculation. But this much, at least, is true: one small act of kindness saved a life that night and transformed the world.

And what about you and me in these disrupted, chaotic times of ours? What about the pressure of all our many obligations? It’s all we can do to get by and stay safe. We’re not gods, after all, and there’s only so much we can do with our limited resources. But there are impulses we may barely notice, impulses we’ve been conditioned to ignore, that come from who-knows-where – from the stars, perhaps, or someplace deep within – impulses that nudge us subtly toward even one small act of kindness that we can perform with our limited abilities and resources.

Maybe it’s like the impulse Matt Riggs felt when he noticed his neighbor in a suburb north of Baltimore had no Christmas lights on her house. He knew his neighbor was dealing with anxiety and depression, grieving the loss of a loved one, struggling with work-related stress, and coping with panic attacks caused by the stress. It was a dark time for her, and Riggs felt a little light would help, so he strung one strand of Christmas lights from his house to hers.

In the days that followed, neighbor after neighbor followed his example, until the whole neighborhood started doing it, sharing lights from one end of the block to the other. “The lights,” one neighbor said, “were a physical sign of connection and love.” “It’s unbelievable,” another one said. “It just blossomed into this amazing community effort.” And the neighbor who was dealing with depression and stress? “It made me look up,” she said, “literally and figuratively, above all the things that were dragging me down. It was light, pushing back the darkness” (reported by Sydney Page, The Washington Post, 21 December 2021).

It may not be Christmas lights shared with a neighbor. Maybe it was the contribution you made to the Child Care Center’s breakfast with Santa for the children, or your thank offering to support the ministries of WELCA, or your Thanksgiving service offering to Community Missions of Niagara Frontier, or your gift of winter clothing to our Buffalo neighbors without shelter. Or maybe it’s something you have yet to do. It may be that whenever something stops you and interrupts the press of your routine business, a new birth of Christ is about to happen. And in that moment, there is light, pushing back the darkness.

One comment

  1. “Maybe it’s something you have yet to do.” That’s a great question to always be asking. Merry Christmas, Rich!

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