No Room at the Inn

Sunday, December 12, 2001

Attribute - Christmas Season
Bible Verses - Luke 2:2


Bath 12-23-01

Micah 5:1-9 Hymns: 524

Luke 2:1-7 528

Responsive Reading #50. pp. 170f. *104

Secrets of Heaven 5495

And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

In telling the story of Jesus's birth, Matthew focuses on the theme of the fulfillment of prophecy: "So it was written by the prophet." Luke does not label his approach so explicitly, but repeatedly tells us of the unexpected, the unlikely. The births of both John the Baptist are against all the odds. The wise men go to the palace to see the new heir to the throne and are sent to a little rural town instead. The birth itself took place not in someone's home, not in an inn, but in a stable.

Part of the unexpectedness of this rests in the fact that some of the prophecies were so dramatic. This was to be the great and terrible "day of the Lord," when springs would burst forth in the desert, when the blind would see and the dumb sing, when the wicked would be burned like stubble and the ransomed of the Lord would return to Jerusalem with songs of joy.

That, in a way, is our style. When something important happens in our lives, we have a tendency to want to celebrate it. We open a new bridge with speeches. We ring bells and blow whistles, we have great fireworks displays. "Look what a wonderful thing we've done!" If we followed the pattern Luke's Gospel shows us, we'd announce all this great display, and a couple of weeks before the supposed event we'd sneak out during the wee hours of some rainy night and cut the ribbon with nobody watching. The first person to cross the bridge would not be some chosen prominent individual but probably some tired trucker making an early delivery, or perhaps someone coming home very late from a party. Local businesses would be upset because they had hoped for a little upsurge in trade from the great event. There would be some interesting letters to the editor of The Times Record.

This is what Phillips Brooks says so well in "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.

No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin

Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.

This familiar verse is offering us a glimpse of what our theology calls "the spiritual sense of the Word." It asks us to read the story of the Lord's birth and to see it as an image of something that is to happen within us. See how the birth took place in Bethlehem? So, just so, God now imparts his blessings to our hearts, in the same inconspicuous way, with out a single bell or whistle, with no speeches and no fireworks. If we want to find the newborn king, by all means let us go to the palace, but only to ask directions. We will be sent to the stable.

In recent years, I have been more and more drawn to reflect on the room that the Gospels leave for speculation and debate. If we recall that they were written after the resurrection and the ascension, after, that is, the disciples had seen the most compelling evidence for Jesus's divinity, it is remarkable indeed that this is not read back into the story more insistently. Instead, time after time we find mixed messages and bewilderment, parables and questions and paradoxical sayings instead of clear and unequivocal statements.

If we ask what this may be telling us about events in our own hearts, if we apply again the principle that "this is how God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven," it suggests that we may have to look more closely than we usually do at events that seem quite ordinary. We look at a spouse coming home from work or doing some everyday household task, realize that this has been happening time after time after time, and are struck by the beauty of this kind of fidelity. It crosses our mind that someone we know might appreciate a call or a card. We look around the room and realize how fortunate we are. A child smiles at us, and we are struck by the contrast between how innocently we are trusted and how doubtful we are that we can trust ourselves.

It is a theological truism to say that everything good and true comes from the Lord. It means that every tender impulse, every caring thought, every glimpse of fresh understanding, every impulse to do something for someone else, comes from the Lord. It is at least a theoretical truism that everything that comes from the Lord is the Lord. In theological language, it is "the divine proceeding," the Holy Spirit. If we knew this as clearly as Jesus did, we would echo his words: "The Father within is the one who is doing these works." We do them only "as if of ourselves," with a feeling of independence that is absolutely necessary to our spiritual survival; but to the extent that we claim any goodness or truth as our own, it becomes self-serving. We get trapped in that endless spiral of pride in our goodness and shame at our pride and pride at our humility and despair at our irrepressible sense of self-importance.

The only way out of this spiral is a way within. The argument is being carried on in the outer levels of our mind, the levels closest to our physical senses, because it is these physical senses that tell us so insistently that we are nothing but separate, independent individuals. Our third lesson associates this with the image of "the inn," and calls it "the outer level of the natural," which needs a little explanation.

The word "natural" has taken on connotations that the Latin word naturalis simply does not have. For us, "natural" often means "spontaneous." One of its usual opposites is "artificial," so it suggests what is genuine. In Swedenborg's Latin, though, one of its usual opposites is "spiritual." That is, it is associated with this physical world. Often, it refers to our outward behavior, to the things that we do and say physically as opposed to our inner behavior, to the deeper objectives that can lie hidden within our deeds and words. "The natural" does go beyond the strictly physical to include our thoughts about this world and our affections for it. That is, it includes not only the giving of Christmas presents but the planning that makes the giving happen. It includes not only the food on the table but also our appetite for it.

"The inn" is a wonderfully appropriate symbol of the outer level of this part of our being. An inn is all about a lot of coming and going. Lots of people are involved, but nobody really stays very long. In a way, nobody really lives there except the innkeeper. For some reason, it reminds me of doing the dishes. You do them, they're done, and next thing you know they're back again, just a little different because it was a different meal. They keep coming and going and coming.

There is a hymn that says it very well,

'Mid all the traffic of the ways, turmoils without, within,

Make in my heart a quiet place and come and dwell therein.

That "quiet place" would be room in the inn.

One of the reasons for the current popularity of meditative disciplines, surely, is the depth of our need for such quiet places. There is so much coming and going in our lives sometimes that we find ourselves saying "I don't have time to think." It is ironic that this can be particularly true during the Advent season, when we need to do all the usual things for the maintenance of our lives and want to do as well all the extra things that make the seasons special. "The inn" can be so full of shopping and decorating and cooking and writing and mailing that there is no room for the birth that the season is all about.

Yet there is something odd and hopeful, if we take just a moment to notice it. Some people seem to be much less harried than others, and there is no simple ratio between this and how much they are actually doing. Sometimes, in fact, it seems as though the people who are most frantic are the least effective. The actual turmoil may be only in the inn, in the outer levels of our focus on activity. There may be a quiet place within, and not all that far within, either.

Let us think back for a moment to last year's Christmas. What were we anxious about then? Can we even remember? If we can, what did it have to do with the real quality of our Christmas? Take decorating the tree. The joy was in its beauty, in the way it made the room a special place. A different tree now stands as a reminder of the people who will gather around it, and of what it will be telling them. The whole room smells like Christmas. As we decorate, we can welcome these thoughts into our minds, and they will come bearing feelings of contentment. Or, of course, we can focus on checking this task off our list, with our minds on the other items remaining, full of anxiety that we may have left something off.

At this point, I find myself entertaining some moderately heretical thoughts. Perhaps the Lord is not particularly interested in having us celebrate his birth with bells and whistles and fireworks. Perhaps Christmas is not primarily about special worship services with all the stops pulled out. Perhaps Christmas is about taking a moment to look around the room at family and friends and realize how dear they are and how blessed we are.

One thing is certain. The Lord does not want us to turn to him in any way that means turning away from each other. If he is to be born in us today, it will be in the midst of our very ordinary dealings with those we love-and we may not even notice it.


Secrets of Heaven 5495

"To give fodder to his donkey in the inn." This means that they should think seriously about what they have learned in their outward, natural lives, as we can tell from the meaning of "giving fodder to his donkey." This means reflecting on what we have learned, since fodder is to food donkeys are fed with, specifically chaff and straw. So we are talking about the way we process what we learn, since reflection is a primary means of nourishment. I have already noted the meaning of "a donkey" as learning about the world (5492); and as for the meaning of "an inn" as the our outer, natural lives, this I cannot actually support by parallel passages in the Word, but it still follows from the fact that in a way, what we learn is "in its inn" when it is in this outer, natural level of our natures. I have mentioned that there is an inner and an outer side of this natural level (5228). When what we are learning is on this outer natural level, it is in direct touch with our outer physical senses. It settles and comes to rest there, so to speak. That is why this natural level is "an inn," or a place where our learning can come to rest or spend the night.

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