Holy Hindsight

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kelley nikondeha -holy hindsight3

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.

According to Luke, the days were an unprecedented blur. The emperor called for a worldwide census, the first of its kind. The leadership in Judea (and every other region in Roman territory) scrambled to facilitate the massive registration of citizens. Everyone made plans to return to ancestral villages or host extended family traveling from afar. The known world was astir as Augustus tried to count heads for taxation purposes.

As a descendent of King David, Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Mary, who he was engaged to marry though she was pregnant. None of this was ideal.

The family in the City of David prepared to receive people…lots of people. Long lost cousins, aunts and uncles were returning to the little town of Bethlehem. They’d caravan with their sons and daughters to be counted for Caesar. All of them would expect the offer of hospitality from extended family, including lodging and a place at the dinner table.

So men cleared spaces, made beds and eked out every bit of available room to host their kin. They emptied every corner of stables, too, since family would come with beasts of burden. They needed extra firewood, charcoal, and straw. Women scoured the market for ingredients, stocked up as much as they could and prepared family favorites. They unearthed hidden jars, broke them open and spent what they had on wine for nights of reunion. Bethlehemites made room because they knew the clan was coming home.

No one wanted a tax increase. But they held onto the silver lining—the anticipation of simple family gatherings amid the chaos and commotion of the census.

***

Mary gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Really? No room for them? In a city ready to receive all the relatives there was no room? I find this hard to believe. It’s no surprise that the inns would be full given the required registration. But resorting to an inn points to something questionable about the family dynamic. It would be a shame on this branch of David’s family tree if they didn’t or couldn’t offer hospitality to their kin. So why didn’t they welcome Joseph and his betrothed?

Remember that Joseph was engaged to young Mary. And before their marriage ceremony she gets pregnant. We learn from Matthew that Joseph planned to divorce her quietly, which was his right. But then an angel spoke, revealing the truth that the Spirit overshadowed Mary and she carried God’s own son. So in his own way, he said yes to the holy impossible, too. He kept Mary and her child despite the stigma her premarital pregnancy presented. But this wasn’t an ideal situation.
Word of this unorthodox union must have traveled ahead of them to Bethlehem. Maybe the relatives that arrived first got to break the news. I imagine that soured their opinion of Joseph and made the prospect of receiving him unsavory. The couple came with a tarnished reputation sure to start rumors. And who wanted to host a hotbed of gossip?

None of this would have been a surprise to Joseph. He was the kind of man that understood what a burden he and Mary might be to extended family. He may have heard from the angel about her holy-begotten son, but the others didn’t hear what he heard. He would not have expected them to welcome him with honor. Any man willing to divorce quietly would probably not press people for lodging, even if hospitality was due as kin. He understood the rules of respectability. He knew he and Mary violated those as far as the family could see. They were not ideal houseguests.

Maybe he didn’t knock too loudly when he arrived to a family home. He allowed them plausible deniability—“We didn’t hear anyone at the door.” Or maybe when he reached a residence and the door opened, he noticed the wince or the hesitation. He might have quickly offered only greetings and moved on, dusting his feet at the doorstep as the door closed. The relieved relative was spared the embarrassment of hosting a compromised couple. He preserved their dignity, but at the expense of Mary and the crowning Christ.

***

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night… So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Child lying in the manger.

Joseph found his way into a stable, an enclosure for animals. It was a space they—and their stigma—could bed down for the night. It would be the place the Christ Child entered into the world and they became The Holy Family. Angels summoned shepherds as make-shift family to welcome the baby born under the silent stars, allowing those meek souls to receive him into a waiting world. None of this was ideal, but it was real.

This is often the case with us, I fear. We deck the halls for the flurry of holiday gatherings and guests. We coordinate airport pick-ups, cookie exchanges and hang the stockings with care. We welcome our family and neighbors alike for the festivities. We prepare for a simple Christmas of goodness and light.
But in such simplicity there is no room for Joseph and Mary. There is no room for the complexity of their story. And if we cannot push past the fear of others and their tangled stories, we might be more like the extended family that missed out on the holy arrival and less like the shepherds who scrambled past their fears and into the stable on that midnight clear.

We tend look for simple pleasures during the holidays. Simple recipes, simple décor, even simple platitudes about joy warm our hearts. We dream of the ideal celebration with the ideal guests. But Christmas comes as laden with complexity as it is heavy with holiness. We cannot host holiness (or the holy family) if we don’t hold space for the complicated situations people bring to our doorstep.

If we don’t haves eyes to see and energy to engage with those in the thick of the muck and mire of life, we might miss out on the true miracle of Christmas. Who would it be simpler to overlook and not invite—the cousin with an array of dietary restrictions or our uncle with mental illness? Who would it be easier to avoid and hope someone else will welcome them instead—our grandmother with Alzheimer’s or our college friend who recently came out or our niece struggling with PTSD? We can have a full table and feel satisfied, but miss the most holy opportunity—hosting the least simple people.

Maybe we need to welcome the complexity of people’s situations this season. Make time to consider who needs a room and might be reticent to ask. Who needs a place, even though they will be difficult to host or bring some questions to our doorstep? Can we make room not for the ideal, but the real? Can we make room not in the inn, but in our own home for Christ among us?

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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  • Tammy Chase Whitney

    As we welcome people with all of their complex situations I think that it’s important to try to see what’s hiding beneath all of the complexity….beautiful souls in which God takes great delight! Your words are helpful in opening our hearts as we prepare for Advent. Thank you!

    • Tammy, you heard my heart! Preparing for Advent and for the holiday logistics that usually come at the same time we often opt for the simple. But I was so struck – and convicted – by Joseph in the Luke story. I kept wondering who are the Josephs in my life – good men (and women) who would never impose but ought to be welcomed in nonetheless. Most holy encounters are heavy with complexity… and so I pray to be ready this season. Blessings to you.

  • Kelley, this is brilliant. Thank you for warming the temperature of our hearts in preparation for the gatherings that are ahead of us.

    • You’re welcome, friend! This message is challenging me this season as I prepare for complexity this holiday. Blessings to you!

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  • I’ve been thinking a lot about hospitality and it’s deeper meaning – how easy it is to invite like-minded, like-looking people to my table. It’s also easy to be hospitable to the vastly different, whether economically or nationally. It’s so much more difficult to open my doors to those who are complex. Who make the conversation uncomfortable. I’m thinking about my own complexities, too…. Thank you for helping me to start this season with some questions.

  • Gobsmacked. You rock. You pierce. This is so good.

  • Kathleen Bertrand

    Whoa! Kelley I LOVE how you bring new perspective on stories I have heard my whole life. Every post blows up my “understanding” of these stories. Thank you!

    • The deep joy of studying Scripture – the Spirit keeps giving up fresh insight to challenge and bless followers! Glad we are in it together!

  • Sherry Naron

    Woah!