I am an old man now – with the memory of an old man – I don’t remember much from yesterday, but I remember clearly that night 35 years ago. I owned an inn in the town of Bethlehem — in Judea. My inn was, if I may say so myself . . . . . a real dump. But given the limited possibilities of that small town – well, I was able to charge a hefty price. I’m not proud of that – I’m just saying – and on that night 35 years ago my rates were through the roof – the Romans were up to some bureaucratic nonsense where all people had to return to the town of their ancestry, and any and all who were of the house and lineage of David were flocking to Bethlehem to be registered. You can bet I was rubbing my greedy palms together in absolute delight. I could and did charge a small fortune and nobody was complaining at how bad the rooms were – they were just thankful for sleeping room. But I digress; the main point I want to make was that I was not an hospitable inn-keeper – I wasn’t even an honest innkeeper. So why all this happened to me – well, I cannot say.
It began near dark with this odd couple coming to my door asking for lodging. And what a sight they were – a relatively older man and a young woman – no that’s not right – she was too young to be called a woman, she was a young girl, and this young girl was obviously pregnant. And I knew just enough about childbirth to know her time was near – very, very near. I told this couple I had no room for them in the inn. Too bad, I thought. In their straights they might have been willing to pay any amount I asked – if they had any money which from the looks of them I seriously doubted. And then the man opened his mouth – his accent gave him away. He was a Galilean – one of those people, a resident of Galil ha Goyim, the region of the pagans. Not that I was religious, it was just that people from Galilee had a certain reputation – none of which was good. And this couple’s clothes were rags, and they seemed not to be carrying much of anything other than the clothes on their backs. The man, he said his name was Joseph, the man wasn’t listening to what I said – there was no room for them in my inn, and then the girl started to cry – her tears mingling with the road dust on her cheeks – making her look all the more pathetic. And Joseph just kept pressing me: Wasn’t there someplace they could stay? Jokingly, I told them I had a cave out back of the inn – one that served both as a tomb for my ancestors and a stable for my animals to take shelter in. It was a real stink-hole. But I told them they could sleep there. The young woman lifted her face to Joseph, smiled, and said to me, “We’ll take it.” OK, I thought. Don’t blame me if you have to lie down in dung.
And so I led them to the cave. Joseph went in first – and nodded. Yes, this will be fine. But just then the young girl – Miriam – Mary – the young girl suddenly cried out, “The baby’s coming!!” I quick rushed to the inn to get a maid to come help with the birth. And it was all accomplished in no time at all, Mary and the baby both fine and good. One odd thing though – as I thought, this family had no extra clothing with them – and so Mary wrapped her baby – Jesus, by name, Mary wrapped Jesus in the grave windings that pregnant women carried with them when their time was near – because as many babies died in childbirth as lived. But here was this obviously healthy newborn wrapped for the grave and lying in a feed trough that had once doubled as a burial niche.
For since that tiny hand of God reached out and touched my own greedy, unprincipled hand nothing has ever been the same. You may say that though I was still in the world I was no longer of it – and I know that when my time to leave this earth is come, God will, once more, reach out, take me by the hand, and lead me . . . gently . . . . Home.
I was exhausted by all this hullabaloo and after a good draught of wine I went to bed. But my sleep was short-lived. I woke up to the sound of excited voices out back near the cave. I got dressed, took a lantern with me and discovered that the source of the noise was a pack of shepherds. Did you know that the teachers in the Temple and in the synagogues wondered why in the world God would ever be likened to a shepherd? Not only where shepherds grungy – they were thieves, most of them. But, if they were intent on robbing Mary and Joseph they had a big surprise coming – HA! – there was nothing to steal.
But that didn’t seem to be what these shepherds were up to – no, they were telling a tale about seeing something up in the sky, something like curtains of shimmering lights and these shimmering lights were making music and then as the shepherds were starting to keel over in fright, a voice came from the sky telling them to fear not – the ribbons of light – angels perhaps, though I had never seen one and did not know what they looked like – these ribbons of light were telling the shepherds that they were bringing good news of great joy for all the people – “to you” sang the light, “to you shepherds is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And the voices told the shepherds to go into Bethlehem and find Mary and Joseph and a child wrapped in grave windings and lying in a feed trough. And then, said these shepherds, the skies seemed to be on fire and it was if a thousand voices were singing, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to all people.” I sniffed to smell if these shepherds had had too much wine – but the only thing I smelled was the odor of sheep. (The smell of wine would have been better.) But just as I was thinking these shepherds were possessed by demons, a strange buzzing started in my own ears and ribbons of light filled my own eyes. And this buzzing – I didn’t hear words – but there was a Word, a protest against the darkness and I felt a deep peace come over me. I followed the shepherds into the cave – and though there was Mary and Joseph, the baby, my cattle, a few chickens, the shepherds and some of their sheep, that once ordinary space seemed to have become much larger than itself – it was not crowded at all, but now seemed able to welcome the whole world. Weirdest feeling I’ve ever had.
No . . . no. That’s not right – something more weird: a couple of years ago everything seemed to go bad for this Jesus – who by then had attracted a lot of attention. Seems he had a lot of followers – but none of them too respectable. And Jesus was telling people that God was like a loving father – and remember it was blasphemy for a human to speak of God as Father – it made you equal to God in some way. And the religious leaders – they wanted this Jesus killed – not only did he refer to God as his own Father, but he kept on breaking other religious rules too – he said he forgave peoples’ sin – he healed people on the Sabbath – he was even said to be a sort of miracle worker – changing a small basket of bread into enough food for thousands. Having put up enough with Jesus the religious leaders got Pontius Pilate to agree to sentence Jesus to death. But even in death, Jesus irritated the good religious folk – as he was dying he forgave not only one of those being crucified with him – he forgave his executioners and all those standing beneath the cross making fun of him.
Had it all ended there, it would have been just another nice guy finishing last. But it didn’t end there. On the third day it is told, the tomb of Jesus was empty – except for a pulsing light that said Jesus was not there but was risen from the dead. What’s more, it’s said that when Jesus appeared to his followers – all of whom had ditched Jesus in his hour of need – one having even denied he ever knew Jesus – when Jesus appeared to this sorry crew – they became deathly afraid of what he might do to them – but what did he do? He gave them his kiss of peace.
Having been there the night of Jesus’ birth, I have no doubt that all of this happened just as we have heard it did. For since that tiny hand of God reached out and touched my own greedy, unprincipled hand nothing has ever been the same. You may say that though I was still in the world I was no longer of it – and I know that when my time to leave this earth is come, God will, once more, reach out, take me by the hand, and lead me . . . gently . . . . Home.