Christmas Eve at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
When we were young, my family would often spend Christmas in the homes of relatives. I remember being at my grandmother’s house in the north of England – a tiny council house, I have no idea how she fit us all in. More often I remember staying at an aunt and uncle’s large Edwardian home. It was much bigger than my grandmother’s house, but then so was their family. Eventually, my brother and I petitioned our parents to stay home for Christmas. We wanted our own space, our own tree, stockings outside our own bedroom doors. We were children, after all; but still, it shocks me to realize how little thought I gave to the accommodations our relatives made in their homes, their lives, their own Christmases in order to let us stay and celebrate with them.
This year, one of our grown children is bringing a new family member home – a cat, whom our cat is quite unsure about welcoming into his territory. That may be why I was thinking of those details and shifts and makeshifts that my grandmother and our cousins must have hidden in order to make us welcome.
It’s said that the inn from which Mary and Joseph were banished to the stable might have been the home of distant family members, full of out-of-town guests travelling in like our holy family for the census. It would not have been the most private place for the onset of Labour. Some say that that sending Mary to the stable was an act of hospitality, of kindness rather than exclusion.
You may have seen or read that the stable itself was an adapted cave below the main house, a cellar sheltering the typical smallholder’s animals and equipped with a manger to feed them. Maybe, after all, it was the safest, warmest place to accommodate such an inconvenient event as a visitor giving birth.
Whatever the details of the establishment, of the house, or the inn, we are told clearly that there was no room for Jesus to be born within, and that alternative arrangements needed to be offered, whether out of generosity or duty we do not know. But someone had to make room for this rapidly dilating and expanding family.
So Jesus is born into our world. He barely fits into a schematic that has no room for pregnant virgins, no harbour for miracles, no time for angels interrupting the satellite signals.
We do our best to make room for him, out of love of duty; to love his image in the face of the stranger, inconveniently and abruptly born among us. We try to make room for him as for the unexpected, and the precariously situated. We try to reassure ourselves that we have made room for him in our hearts, at least, even while more and more, it can feel as though the world has little room for commandments or covenants like loving one’s neighbour at least as much as oneself, or entertaining strangers as though they were angels come from afar, refugees from a foreign plane sent by God with good news.
Still, into this tight and griping world, Jesus is born, with the effortful but determined, sometimes complicated but unanswerable, slow but urgent pangs of labour, the contract between heaven and earth that will not be denied. God finds room, becoming small enough to be swaddled and laid in a manger, as the glory of the new covenant splits open the skies and lets the angels loose:
“Peace on earth,” they cry. Good will toward all people, whom God loves, whom God loves.
To enter our world, in love, God becomes meek enough, weak enough, vulnerable enough to slip into our image, small enough to be born among us, Emmanuel; and we try to make room.
John Donne, the old English poet, wrote
Immensitie cloistered in thy deare wombe …
Weake enough, now into our world to come;
But Oh, for thee, for him, hath th’Inne no roome?
But, hold on a minute. Hold the donkey now. God is come into our world? Who is making room for whom here?
God, who made the heavens and the earth; God who made humanity to fit into God’s image; God who is above all and under all and within and without all – God who made room for us, a garden earth to inhabit, God who made room for us in the Ark, and between the waters of the Red Sea, and within the mercy of God’s steadfast love – that God is the One who is with us, Emmanuel.
So who is making room for whom here?
While we think we might be making room for Jesus, Jesus makes room for us in the generosity of his Incarnation. By the sweeping gesture of his birth, he enfolds all of us, swaddles us in the grace of God. How, we wonder, can an infant, a newborn baby do all this? It is because he is Jesus, which means Saviour; he is Emmanuel, which means God has come among us.
Whether we finished our Advent meditations or our spiritual Christmas shopping, Christ is coming. Whether we have cleaned our houses or decorated our hearts, he is near. Whether we have brought in the food or set the table, he is with us, he is here
In our foolish imaginations, we consider that we are making room, making time, making space for Jesus in our lives, but the joke is on us, and Christmas tells it. The One who made time and space has made room for us in the covenant of grace, the contract of love that is sealed by the blood and water of birth, and witnessed by shepherds and angels. God has made room for us in the stable, and fed us from the manger. God is an ever gracious host, in whose dwelling place are many mansions, and God makes room for us all: Thanks be to God.
“La Corona: Nativitie”, in The Complete Poetry of John Donne, edited by John T. Shawcross (Anchor Books, 1967), 33
See also Maggi Dawn, Beginnings and Endings [and what happens in between] (The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2007), 116-7
Other Christmas messages: Blue Christmas, Solstice (a poem)
A good reminder as I sit here, the sole wakeful person just home from midnight services. Last to leave the church, as I waited for the candles to cool enough to be refilled with oil. Scratchy throat grateful to have sung, soot stained fingers grateful to have served, humble heart grateful to have been saved. Wishing you a very joyful 12 nights to come and a glorious Epiphany!