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Rolheiser: No room in the inn

20 December 2021

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Rev. Ron Rolheiser

Jesus was born outside of the city, outside of a hospital, outside of a normal house. The Gospels tell us he was born in a stable, outside the city because there was no room for them in the inn.

We have always vilified the infamous innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away, and the lesson we took from this was the need for less self-preoccupation in our lives, that we should not be so busy and preoccupied that there’s no room for the divine to be born in our lives.

Indeed, there’s a lesson there, one I need for my own life. Given the pressures of the past few weeks, so far this year I haven’t had the chance to give Christmas more than a passing thought. No room in my inn right now! And so, I nurse a lot of sympathy for that original innkeeper, knowing how easily we can over-pack our lives so that there’s no room left to welcome in a divine visitor.

Now, while that’s an important challenge, biblical scholars suggest there’s a deeper lesson in the fact that Jesus was born in a stable outside the city because there was no room for him in the inn.

The real point the Gospels are making is not so much the seeming callousness of an innkeeper, but rather the fact that Jesus was born outside of a city, outside of what’s comfortable, outside of glamour and fame, outside of being recognized by the rich and the powerful, outside of notice by the everyday world. Jesus was born in anonymity, poor, outside of all notice, except by faith and God.

His birth outside the city also foreshadowed his death and burial. Jesus’ earthly life will end as it began, as a stranger, an outsider, crucified outside the city, buried outside the city, just as he was born outside the city.

Thomas Merton once gave a particularly poignant comment 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, outside of all persons and events that seemed important at the time. Two thousand years later, we now recognize the importance of that birth. Indeed, the world measures time by it. We are in the year 2021 since that unnoticed birth. However, at the time, almost no one took notice.

What’s the lesson? What’s the takeaway?  Among other things, this is meant to give us a different perspective vis-à-vis what’s ultimately important in this world and what isn’t. Who ultimately shapes history? The big movers and shakers or those on the outside?

Biblically speaking, most of us were born outside the city, meaning that in our lives we will forever be the outsiders, unknowns, anonymous, small-time, small-town, persons who are incidental to the big picture and the big action.

Our photo and our story will never grace the headlines. Our names will never be up in lights and we will live and die in basic anonymity, not known by many outside of our own small circles.

Most of us will live out our lives in 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 always seeing someone other than ourselves as important.

We ourselves, seemingly, will remain forever unknown and our talents and contributions will not be particularly noticed by anyone, perhaps not even by our own families. Figuratively, we will always be “outside the city”. We will live, work, and give birth to love and life in humble places.

Perhaps most painful of all, we will know the frustration of being unable to truly give our talents and gifts over to the world, but will find instead that the deepest symphonies and melodies that live within us will never find much expression in the outside world.

Our dreams and our deepest riches will never find much of an earthly stage. There will never be a place in the inn for what’s best in us to be born. Our deep riches, like Jesus’ birth in our world, will remain “outside the city”, ultimately dying by the martyrdom of anonymity and inadequate self- expression (also “outside the city”).

Mary gave birth to the Christ in a barn outside the city because there was no room in the inn. This is a comment on more than just the inhospitality of one over-stressed innkeeper. It’s an important teaching on how we need to assess what ultimately shapes life.

In essence, it tells us that it’s not necessarily those who seemingly preside at the center of things (the powerful, the rich, the famous, the government leaders, the entertainment celebrities, the corporate heads, the scholars, the academics) who will have time measured by their lives. What’s deepest, most meaningful, and most important in life is often born in anonymity, unnoticed by the powerful, tenderly swaddled in faith, outside the city.