Can we really blame the Innkeeper who turned the Holy Family away? I know I can’t. It seems to me that, as much as we’ve glossed over the Nativity scene in our minds, the real thing was a sloppy, uncomfortable event, populated by people you and I most likely wouldn't want to spend time with.
The thing is, we really like to think of the Nativity in terms of the water-colored Christmas cards we send out each year. You know the ones I mean: a happy, clean, Caucasian baby Jesus surrounded by adorable little farm animals. But while there’s nothing objectively wrong with that, we can’t forget that the real beauty of the Nativity was in its messy, imperfect realness. Mary, the Wise Men, the shepherds; they were all people the average “good Christian” wouldn't want to be seen with. Even Jesus’ extended family was – as my friend and colleague Brian Kissinger pointed out – more-or-less the original Island of Misfit Toys.
And yet, God loved these people and chose them not despite their brokenness, but in light of it. And this should be an inspiration to us, not just because it teaches us that we aren't beyond the love of God, but because it also calls us on to be kinder and more loving to exactly the kind of people who were present at the birth of Christ, those people who we might otherwise not be so kind and loving to.
Put into a modern context, the shepherds of Jesus’ day could be compared with today’s homeless, and not the “with a heart of gold” kind you see in the movies, but more like the “we should probably cross to the other side of the sidewalk” kind you see in real life. They could also be compared to the poor, the mentally ill, the socially awkward, or anyone else who makes you uncomfortable to be around. And yet, the shepherds are the first to be told of the birth of Jesus. They are welcomed into the scene of Christ’s birth, the first citizens of the Kingdom.
Despite tradition, the Magi weren’t “kings” or even particularly wise (by modern standards). Actually, they were fire priests of an ancient Pagan religion known as Zoroastrianism.
The Zoroastrians had a complex history with the Jews. A Persian religion, Zoroastrianism was one of the few ancient religions – including Judaism – that were monotheistic (meaning, they worshiped only one god). This similarity allowed for a surprising amount of religious dialogue between the Jews and the Zoroastrians and the two faiths ended up greatly impacting one another, with the Jews shaping the Zoroastrian concept of a single god and the Zoroastrians laying the ground-work for the Jewish understanding of the Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately, around the time of the prophet Daniel, the Zoroastrians started to experiment with polytheism, and by the time Christ was born, the Zoroastrians were straight-up worshiping fire.
So what’s the significance of having Zoroastrian Magi at the birth of Christ? Biblically, the Magi could represent all those who started out as followers of God – just as the Zoroastrians once were – but have since fallen away. Maybe the Magi are us in our weaker moments of faith, but I’d submit that the Magi are those friends and family members who've fallen away from the faith and who we no longer can get along with.
And yet, it is exactly this kind of person who Christ wanted at his birth. Sure, the Magi in our lives might arrive a little late to their faith, but Christ is calling them just as he called the Biblical Magi so long ago. In the mean time, it’s our job to love these people and realize that Christ makes a special place for them at his birth.
Mary was just a girl, maybe 16 (maybe 14, some say). Yes, she was engaged to be married, but she was still just a girl. As Catholics, we know that her child was the Son of God and that hers was a virgin pregnancy, but her friends and neighbors didn't know that.
In fact, part of the true significance of Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth is the fact that she would've looked completely normal when she left, but very, very pregnant once she arrived home, giving those she knew the opportunity to speculate and judge her.
I tear up to think of the pressure and stress young Mary must have been under, and isn't that the point? Christ made himself vulnerable through His Incarnation, but His Incarnation was made possible because Mary was so vulnerable. Now we see her as “Queen of Heaven and Earth” but once upon a time, she was just a scared, 16-year-old, pregnant Jewish girl.
Do you know somebody who, like Mary once was, is scared and vulnerable right now? Maybe it’s a young woman who really is pregnant out of wedlock. Have you reached out to her? And not just because you want her to keep the baby, but because you really care about her? Or maybe you know someone who’s just frightened and stressed and has a lot on their plate right now. Reach out to that person and be for them the comfort that the Angel of the Lord once was for Mary when he told her to “be not afraid”.
Sometimes it’s not the outcast shepherds or the fallen-away Magi or the scared virgins that are the hardest to show love to. Sometimes, it’s the Josephs of the world.
There’s not a lot that we know about Joseph’s personality, but we do know one thing: he was a righteous man (Matthew 1:19). He was a hard worker, he was learned in the sacred scriptures, he was probably a well-respected leader in his community, and – in general – he seemed to have it all together. But, as much as his tendency towards righteousness made him incredibly holy, it also caused him his share of mistakes, like when he almost divorced his wife.
Often, I think, it’s hardest to love those people who are truly holy. Perhaps we envy them, or we feel judged by them, but whatever the reason, we sometimes look at righteous people and wait for them to make a mistake so that we can feel validated in our bitterness. But it doesn't mean a person’s not righteous anymore if they make a mistake. It means they’re human.
Imagine how scared Joseph must have been with all he had to face. Imagine how hard it must have been to trust God, to trust his bride, to trust in himself when the odds seemed so against him. And yet he remained righteous, desperately trying to keep it all together for his wife and son.
When we see someone like Joseph, it can be easy to try and find something wrong with them so we can feel better about ourselves. But the loving thing to do is to see how we can help these people, especially when they’re finding it difficult to keep it all together. If St. Joseph can make a mistake, surely the righteous men and women in our lives should be allowed to.
What it all means
Am I saying these are the only lessons to be drawn from the Nativity story? Of course not. Thousands of books can and have been written on the subject. Still, it’s good to take a step back now and again so that we can really look at the characters of the Nativity, who God called and loved not despite their weaknesses and imperfections but largely because of them. It’s good news for you and I who are most certainly imperfect, but it’s also a call to action to more intentionally love those who we might forget about in the day-to-day.
From all of us at In the Beginning Ministries,