“She gave birth to her firstborn, a son; she put him in a simple cloth wrapped like a receiving blanket, and laid him in a feeding trough for cattle, because there was no room for them at the inn.”
– Luke 2: 7 (The Inclusive Bible)
It is odd how one small phrase can set free the Biblical imagination. For example, how many Christmas pageants have you attended in which Mary and Joseph knock on the door of the inn and encounter a grouchy, disheveled innkeeper, accompanied by a silent wife? Gruffly the innkeeper tells the expectant couple, with little or no explanation, that there is no room for them at the inn, and abruptly slams the door in their blessed faces. However, nowhere in the scripture is an actual innkeeper, or an innkeeper’s spouse, mentioned. The Bible just tells us “there was no room for them at the inn.” Perhaps Mary and Joseph simply found a “No Vacancy” sign posted on the door, or received no response at all to their frantic knocks.
However, the innkeeper role is one that allows us to explore the human condition in greater depth. In my childhood, the innkeeper was a part coveted by the boys in my Sunday school class. It was an opportunity to participate in the obligatory Christmas pageant without having to spend too much time in front of the congregation, or dress in an angel or animal costume. At the same time, they might get to express their “coolness” by slamming a door really hard. On occasion, the shiest girl in the class would pose as his wife, standing by idly through the insult of the holy and expectant family. Hence, the Christian Midrash of the innkeeper and his wife.
So if we allow our Biblical imagination some additional freedom, we might wonder what happened after the innkeeper closed the door. Would the silent wife remain silent? Would she push back against her excluding and uncaring spouse? Do the two simply go back to bed? Do either of them take food or blankets to the hungry and shivering young couple preparing to welcome their first child in a bed of straw?
Here is one rendition of the couple’s exchange. I encourage you to consider a few of your own.
“What are you looking at?” mumbled the innkeeper to his spouse.
Quickly she averted her eyes, looking at the floor. She had seen him turn others away in the night, but there was something different about this couple. The man was travel-worn and his spouse doubled over, seeming to be experiencing pain. Judging from her clothes, she might even be pregnant.
“I asked you a question,” he provoked.
“Nothing,” she mumbled, eyes still staring at the dirt floor.
He started to walk past her, through the small area where food was prepared, to the back sleeping rooms. Then he heard her speak.
“This just feels different,” her small voice uttered before she even knew she had said anything.
“Don’t question me,” he retorted. “What do you know about this? You don’t run this business, or make a single mite to keep this family fed. I break my back every day keeping this business going. You don’t know anything.”
“But I think the woman might be pregnant and even in labor,” the wife said, lifting her eyes to see if this observation had escaped her already irate spouse.
“Are you questioning my decision?” His voice grew louder. “Who are you to question me? That woman is with child and could render this entire house ritually unclean if she stays here. All of the clients will leave, I will have to refund their money, and my reputation as an innkeeper will be ruined forever. We will have no money and be out in the streets begging because you wanted to be merciful to some strange women and her unborn child.”
His anger always frightened her, although he had never actually hit her. Still she persisted.
“Would your God, our God, the God of our ancestors, want a woman to give birth in a cold cave among the cattle? Is ritual cleanliness that important to God? What about hospitality and compassion?”
Now his face was bright scarlet. He turned and backed her into a corner of the kitchen, grabbing her arms so she could not escape.
“Now you question God,” he roared down on her. “Never question me or God!”
With that, he grabbed some kitchen rags, binding her wrists. He put another across her mouth, gagging her.
Stomping out of the kitchen, he passed two sets of horrified eyes. “You’ll be next,” he growled. “I just need some peace.” With that, he went back to the bed, leaving his two daughters to huddle in fear next to their mother for the night.
But he never actually hit her.
When we pray for peace on earth, what are we asking for? For some it means silencing the voices that are uncomfortable to hear…the voices that keep us from our “silent” night. Nagging spouses and tired children might ruin a peaceful night’s sleep. Still, peace on earth cannot happen if we are only concerned with what is “ours”: our inn, our money, our property, our economy, our security, our comfort, and ourselves. True peace on earth starts with the restraint we practice when we are willing to hear all the voices, even those that might seem vexing or whiny. It starts when we listen to the marginalized with the same interest and attention as the powerful. It happens when legislators and leaders yield their power to make room for the voices of women and children. Peace on earth happens when we are in relationship with people of all genders, all races, all religions, all abilities, all ages, all ideologies and all classes. Peace on earth happens when we treat all humans with dignity and respect. It happens when the loud and powerful lion makes a safe place for the timid and vulnerable lamb to lay. Peace on earth begins with each one of us, in our homes and in our families.
During the holidays, stress and alcohol abuse can break the peace of our families and incite domestic violence. If you are a victim of domestic violence, or you suspect that at friend or relative might be, we encourage you to call your local domestic violence hotline. Or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800)799-SAFE (7233). They provide confidential and anonymous counseling in 170 languages.
Leigh Goodrich is Sr. Dir. Of Leadership and Education, and the newest member of the GCSRW team. She is a second-career clergyperson from the New England Annual Conference, and frequent blogger for GCSRW. You can read more about her here.