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What "No Room at the Inn" Really Means
Rev. Mark Carlson
All people of Christian faith are deeply moved by the story of the Lord's birth on earth. The story is told in so few words, and yet what words have had a greater impact on history than these? The story is timeless; even now it plays upon our hearts, and we are moved beyond the normal power of the written word. Something within us listens carefully, marks every word, and silently our hearts assent to the inner truth. We are reminded of many childhood images and affections: tableaux, Christmas Eve services, family celebrations, gaily decorated trees, gifts, cards, warm fires, bells, strings and choirs all vibrating with sounds of Christmas, and most of all, warm feelings inside. And yet something haunts us about the story of the Lord's birth. There was no room for Jesus to be born within the comfort of the inn.
The joy and warmth of Christmas is mingled with a poignant sadness; the infant Lord was born in a cold stable, not in the warmth of the inn; He was laid on the rough straw of a manger, not in a cozy bed. We wish that all tiny babies may be protected, may be warm, may be given every consideration by adults. Yet here was a tiny baby, crowded out by unthinking adults, left to be born in a cold stable - a tiny baby whose very soul was the loving Creator of the universe. Our hearts strain at the thought; this should not have happened.
We can vividly imagine the scene from the words that are given us. Many travelers are pushing into the little highland town of Bethlehem. It is almost dark and all are pressing ahead, anxious to find shelter for the night. Joseph and Mary of Nazareth come wearily to the end of their long journey, but no room is left for them in the inn. Others have arrived ahead of them, the inn keeper is harried taking care of his many guests. There is no particular ill will against this couple, neither is there any particular effort to accommodate them. There is nothing to do but seek shelter in a near-by stable where Mary may rest and give birth to her child.
Perhaps we feel indignant at the cold-hearted stupidity of those who crowded the infant Lord from the inn, being more interested in their own comfort than providing for a mother in the pains of labor. Perhaps in this recognition of human insensitivity there is something of sadness. But there is more to it than that. The idea that the Lord was crowded out of an inn as a tiny child claws at our hearts not because of what others did long ago, but because of what we continue to do today. The infant Lord was casually crowded out of the inn long ago, and just so now, through drift of circumstance, and through no particular ill will, we may crowd the Lord out of our hearts.
How far are we willing to sacrifice our comfort and material satisfaction to receive the Lord? Has our inn been filled with so many other guests that there is no longer room for God? While not meaning to be irreligious, have we so occupied our thoughts and feelings with other matters that religion can no longer find a place within us? Is it possible that we too are like an inn, overcrowded with paying guests, where first come are first served with no thought of priorities? Has this noisy demanding world, full of pleasures and competition, taken hold of our time and attention to such an extent that we can no longer make room for a tiny baby who is God?
The spiritual meaning of the Christmas story confronts us head on with the reality of heavenly life, as opposed to what we might expect it to be. It comes as a tiny child, unassuming, undemanding, without glory or honor, with no glittering rewards for our hospitality. We may be accustomed to thinking of heavenly life in terms of such external things as high and honorable uses or paradisal living. But these are not the essential things that the Lord has to offer; rather He offers us peace, tranquility, and happiness, as that of a little child.
What is the internal significance of this tiny baby who is God, in the Christmas story? Whatever it is it must be the quality which is the very center of heavenly life, and the quality which is inmostly and universally the Lord's quality. The infant Jesus represents the quality of innocence, the unassuming, unpretentious, unsophisticated, uncalculating willingness to be led. The Writings tell us that the Lord is innocence itself, that innocence is the human itself (AC 4797:2), and that innocence is the very essential of regeneration (AC 3994:6).
As we read the Christmas story, putting together two ideas of God presented in the Word, that of the magnificent, lovingly-wise Creator of the universe, and the tiny child born of Mary, we feel that power and quality of the Divine innocence. It is an apparently small, quiet thing, and yet it is the very essential of humanity. Thus if we wish to find happiness and heaven in great things, doing wonderful deeds, conquering great injustices, righting the world, but fail to achieve a state of innocence in the process, we will have missed the whole point of earthly life.
Heaven is not an achievement, not a state of doing, but a state of being. So often we feel that we are failures if we have not accomplished great things in our life, or if we have not been able to provide our families with abundant material wealth; but what we accomplish is relatively unimportant. Everything we do will soon turn to dust and be forgotten. But what we are, what we have become, that is vitally important. For what we are affects others more than what we do, and whatever we are when we die will continue to be to eternity.
The inn where there was no room for the infant Jesus to be born is the unsubordinated love of self which is so easily convinced of its own ideas and importance. In the internal historical sense the "inn" is said to represent the Jewish Church at the time of the Advent which could not receive the Lord because of its falsities (AE 706:12). But in the series of our personal regeneration there can be no doubt that the "inn" signifies all those false religions that we tend to follow, the habits and false patterns of life which crowd out innocence.
We like to think that we know so much, we have received tremendous knowledge from the world. Much of what we have learned does not seem to fit with what is taught in the Word and our preconceived ideas of how things are. We question and feel that we must understand everything intellectually before we will fully commit ourselves to the sacrifices of religious life. In short, we wish to lead ourselves - and our innocence is lost.
Yet we know nothing, and no matter how much we learn, we will continue to know nothing when measured against how much there is to know. The Lord tells us that in order to enter the kingdom of God we must become again as a little child. But there is a major difference between the little child we are at birth, and the little child we are to become. The newly-born child knows nothing, but is unaware of its ignorance. The reborn child knows nothing and has learned that he or she knows nothing. Knowing that we do not know is central to the innocence of wisdom. For in this state of humility we are totally open to the Lordís guidance.
This Christmas season each of us will have many guests in our inn. We will be concerned about many things. The crowds will all be jostling for a place in our thought and intention. Will we find room for the tiny baby and worship the Lord from a willingness to be led by Him? Will we follow the Lord in the year to come, or will we go our own way?
-New Church Home 1980; 45:52-53