Mary gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.
In the Christmas story, we have always vilified and demonized the innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away, leaving them no choice for shelter except a stable. And the lesson we took from this was the need for greater hospitality in our lives, the need to not be so busy and preoccupied that there is “no room in the inn”, that is, that there is no place in our busy lives for a messiah to be born, for Christmas to happen.
There is some truth in this, but scholars suggest that there is a deeper lesson in Jesus having to be born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn. What is being stressed is not so much lack of hospitality by an innkeeper, but rather the fact that Jesus was born outside of a city, outside of what is comfortable, outside of glamour and fame, outside of being recognized by the rich and the powerful, and beyond notice by the everyday world. Jesus was born in anonymity, poor, outside of all notice, except for family and God.
Being rejected by the city also foreshadowed his death. Jesus’ earthly life will end as it began. He will be a stranger, an outsider, crucified outside the city just as he was born outside the city.
Thomas Merton once gave a wonderful commentary on this: Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied status as persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.
Jesus was born into this world unnoticed, outside the city, and outside of all persons and events that seemed important at the time. Two thousand years later, we recognize the importance of that birth, but, at the time, virtually no one did. Understanding what is implied in that can help give perspective to those of us who, in our lives, forever, feel like we are outsiders, unknowns, anonymous, small-time, small-town, persons who are incidental to the big action and the big picture. Our photo and our story will never appear in TIME or PEOPLE magazine. Our names will never be up in lights and we are destined to live and die in basic anonymity, not known by anyone outside of our own small circles.
Most of us will live lives of quiet obscurity, in rural areas, in small towns, and in the unknown parts of our cities, watching the big events of our world from the outside and seeing always someone other than ourselves as being at the center. We ourselves, it seems, will remain forever unknown, and our talents and contribution will not be recognized by anyone, perhaps not even our own families. There will never be room for us in the inn. We will live, work, and give birth to life and to our children in much humbler places.
And, perhaps most painful of all, we will suffer the frustration of being unable to manifest our talents and gifts to the world, but will instead find that the deep symphonies and melodies that live within us will never find satisfying expression in the outside world. Our dreams and our deepest riches will never find an earthly stage. There will never be room in the inn, it seems, for what is best within us. Our deepest riches, like Jesus’ birth in our world, will be consigned to the fringes, to the martyrdom of inadequate self- expression, as Iris Murdoch once called this. Art too has its martyrs and there is no pain greater than the inadequacy of self-expression.
Mary gave birth to the Christ in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn. This is a comment on more than just the busyness and inhospitality of some ancient innkeeper. It is a comment upon what, in fact, lies deepest within human life. In essence, what it says is that it is not those who sit at the center of things, the powerful, the rich, the famous, the government leaders, the entertainment celebrities, the corporate heads, the scholars and academics, who ultimately sit at the center of life. What deepest and most meaningful inside of life lies in anonymity, unnoticed by the powerful, tenderly swaddled in faith, outside the city.