O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem
Come and adore Him, born the King of angels
O come let us adore Him ...
Christ the Lord!
We sang that in church this week, and as always, it got me right in the heart.
Come to Bethlehem - come adoring - to see the arrival of Heaven's king, our king, right here with us.
That's my favourite part of this time of year. Coming to Bethlehem, coming to kneel in starry-eyed gratitude at the feet of my Saviour.
I like to think about that little town, crowded and bursting with visitors, who had all rushed home for the census. I can imagine it would have felt kind of like my hometown on Thanksgiving weekend - bumping into people you know, catching up on half-forgotten friends, distant relatives suddenly knocking at your door hoping for a warm meal and welcome.
The innkeeper would have been thrilled and filled and more than a little stressed out, sending servants left and right, and stretching his wits to find one more nook or cranny to tuck a bed.
I think kids would have been the first to have to give up their beds, bunking in with cousins in haylofts or spreading out blankets under the stars. I imagine the starry sky hazed over with woodsmoke, as extra fires cooked extra meals; and the lineup at the village wells stretched long in the dark.
I can imagine myself there, distant family sleeping wall-to-wall throughout the house. I picture stepping over aunts and uncles to check on the kids in their makeshift bed in the storeroom. Patrick and I gave up our bed for Great Auntie, and spread blankets in the tiny kitchen, where we could enjoy the sweet luxury of sleeping alone.
I like to think that if I had wandered out into the night for a breath of cool air, and had seen that poor young mama come riding into town with birth pangs, I would have given up my makeshift kitchen bed too. I would have lined a basket with towels, aprons, anything soft for that tiny new darling to sleep in, til morning would allow me to find our cradle. I would have held water to her lips, and brought bread for that huge rush of hunger after the baby came. I would have done what I could - even without knowing she was bearing the Son of God.
But if we had known?
The whole town would have shifted. Someone bustling and officious would have arranged everyone's best things for Mary's comfort, for Jesus' well-being. Donations would have poured in, volunteers would have thronged the place, and that mewling newborn cry would have been met with tender murmurs from a crowd of hopeful caregivers.
Of course, we didn't know. And we weren't there. And there was no room, no room at all, and Mary brought her baby into the world in a stable, and laid him in a manger.
The crazy and beautiful thing (one crazy and beautiful thing; there are so many) is that He counts it as if we did. Whenever we reach out in love, in mercy, in justice, to serve the needy, He counts it as if we served Him.
Check out what He says in Matthew chapter 25, verses 31-46:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
In His eyes, we are in Bethlehem. We do have a chance to serve Him, to wrap Him in warm clothes, to bring Him good food, to welcome Him, a stranger. Every scrap of kindness, hospitality, mercy, justice we do - He appreciates it as if we were serving Him. He aligns Himself with the needy - didn't He make Himself poor for our sake? - and honours any service we offer to those in need as if we gave to Him.
But He counts the opposite as unto Him, too. When we choose not to give to the poor; when we ignore oppression and close our hearts to the hungry, the sick; when we close our door to those who seek refuge ... we do it as to Him.
I don't know about you, but there are times when I struggle to know what His will is in any given circumstance. My fear, my selfishness, my laziness clouds the way. But He leaves me no excuse when it comes to this. It's really clear. Keeping the Christ in Christmas looks an awful lot like - no, it looks exactly like - seeking out and helping all who need refuge.
Let that holy night in Bethlehem stir our hearts, Christians! Let us swing our doors wide and welcome the weary travelers however we possibly can.