We tell a story at Christmas. The story we tell is full of angels and shepherds. There's a man and his very pregnant wife who rides on a donkey all the way to tiny Bethlehem. There's a manger full of hay and assorted animals standing around. There's a baby born in the night and three kings who followed a great star to find this baby. Oh, and there's an innkeeper who turns Mary and Joseph away because there's no room, only to then have a change of heart and offer them a stable out back.
Except there isn't. An innkeeper, I mean. There just isn't.
It's the Christmas Story we tell by putting together the accounts of Luke and Matthew. Then we throw in some creative interpretation and maybe even add a detail or two that's not actually in Luke and Matthew and we get the picture perfect scene that makes a Christmas Creche (or nativity set), a beautiful card and a beautiful story.
I don't want to belabour the point that it's the story we tell, not the story that's in the Bible. I think there are valid reasons to tell the story the way we do, just as there are valid reasons to examine more closely what the Bible really says.
Maybe the most important reason for the story we tell might be this: surrounded by the world of today, we need to hear a pastoral story of hope and peace. Perhaps then, we might step out of our crazy, hectic, stressful, hurting and broken world and spend a moment at the manger with a quiet, smiling baby who represents the coming of God's love into the world. After all, the world around the manger that night wasn't really so different. It was hurting and broken, too. And that story we tell is about God doing something different from the world we know.
There's a wonderful Christmas prayer from the Iona Community in Scotland that says "you crept in beside us. And no one knew. Only the few who dared to believe that God might do something different. Will you do the same this Christmas, Jesus?"
That's why we need to imagine the peaceful fields of sheep, even with an angel host above it. Or a cozy stable with a nice warm and comfy manger full of hay. Or the glow of candlelight while we sing "Silent Night" before going out into stillness of a moonlit Christmas Eve. God's love doesn't explode on the world, it creeps in. The moment at the manger is just the beginning.
Oh, and about that innkeeper. There's no innkeeper in Luke. It just says that "there was no place for them in the inn" (Luke 2:7). But, just imagine, whether it was a busy and crowded town or a single overwhelmed innkeeper, it helps us to put a face on that. Because that face could be ours.
Mary and Joseph were guided by angels, messengers from God, who told them what to do and to not be afraid to do it. Same with the shepherds. The magi (the three kings) followed the star, a celestial guide of a prophecy. But the innkeeper and the people in Bethlehem that night, they didn't know who was coming or what was happening. All the innkeeper had to do was answer the door and decide whether to let them in. And a manger was enough.
Find a quiet moment to wonder about the Christmas story and the child in the manger. Will you make room? Not just on Christmas Eve, but each day ahead, will you make room for God's love?