Friday, December 23, 2011

No Vacancies

If Mary and Joseph were to arrive in Bethlehem today having travelled from Nazareth they would have found an even bigger problem than they did then. It's very difficult to get in!  Just as 'David's Town' is playing host to huge crowds of international visitors, the people of Bethlehem themselves, many of them Christians, are struggling under the restrictions being placed upon them by the Israeli authorities.  Father Ibrahim Shomali told the Guardian newspaper this week how he thinks the 'holy couple' might fare today. "If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed," says the priest of Bethlehem's Beit Jala parish. "He would either have to be born at a checkpoint or at the separation wall. Mary and Joseph would have needed Israeli permission – or to have been tourists."  Bethlehem is no longer the place we imagine it to be.  Welcome to the real world of the 21st Century Middle East!

But then, this would not be the shock to them that Father Ibrahim imagines.  There was already a 'no vacancies' sign where the young couple wanted to stay.  Luke's gospel calls it 'the Inn' and says that for the lady bearing the Son of God there was no room.  In the original language of the gospel the word translates better as 'guest-chamber' and probably describes that part of the upstairs family accommodation in a typical two-storey dwelling of the period.  Family and guests were upstairs, animals and their mangers were downstairs.  So, maybe Joseph went to his own family relations expecting to be housed there and was refused.  His only option was to place his little family down among the animals where God's Son and his step-son could be born in warmer conditions than outside on the street.  Bethlehem behaves the same then, in 1st and 21st Centuries!

What about my home?  How warm is the welcome in my heart for the Son of God this Christmas?  Is there room for my family - all cosy around a fire - but Jesus finds his place in some draughty church building or even out on the street?  Perhaps the real lesson of the suffering residents of Bethlehem today is that the work of the Prince of Peace is now needed more than ever even in our sophisticated world.

O Little Town of Bethlehem How Sad we see Thee Lie!