The child’s parents lived in an old, proud country that had come under the “influence” of a much more powerful country across the sea. Conflicts had led to civil war, and the country was only just starting to recover. To appease his imperial bosses, the king of the country coordinated a census, requiring all citizens to go register in their families’ ancestral town. The child’s parents would have to join the many other people on the roads and travel to Joseph’s hometown to register.
But there was a problem: the teenaged Mary was very pregnant. She could only move so fast. And so when she and Joseph finally arrived at an inn to stay the night, they found that they were too late: all the rooms were already full. But they could stay in the barn; at least it would be a roof over their heads. That night, among the hay straw and animals, Mary went into labor. One can only imagine how scared the two young parents must have been, trying to deliver their first baby with no one to help them. Some local shepherds, considered rather low-class in that country, were collecting their sheep in a field nearby and must have heard the commotion of Mary giving birth -- they discovered a young couple with their newborn son in the stable: the parents weak and tired, but filled with joy at the health of this perfect child.
Many are familiar with the Christmas nativity story, but the story is worth reconsidering specifically through the lens of 2020. Despite the eviction ban under the Covid-19 pandemic CARES Act (which ended in July) and the subsequent executive order to halt even more evictions in late August through to the end of the year, people in the United States have been losing their homes at record rates. And yet, even with the shutdowns, lost wages, the bare minimum of federal aid, and all the other attending difficulties of the pandemic, many Americans still believe that it must somehow be due to a personal failing that someone loses their job, or has to sleep outside, or gets pregnant at 14. It is practically the default narrative of hardship in our country. The nativity story, however, is specifically about a young, itinerant, pregnant couple dealing with difficult challenges due to circumstances outside of their control. No one has ever accused Joseph of being an alcoholic and waking up too late, or blamed Mary for being lazy and not walking fast enough -- Christians have long understood that the occupied inn and the lowly circumstances of the birth were the cards dealt to the couple, and a message to us.
Many more people today are being dealt worse hands for reasons outside of their control. This was true before the pandemic arrived, but Covid-19 has exacerbated the problems. But Covid-19 has also broken open new possibilities, new visions for the future. Like Mary and Joseph of the nativity story, we live through a transitional period in which the old world is dying and the new struggles to be born. Moments like this are full of real, suffering people. So let us regard each other with the same generosity of spirit as Christians have always regarded Mary and Joseph.
We leave you with this poem from Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and committed promoter of social justice.
“Room in the Inn”
Into this world, this demented inn
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ comes uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
and yet he must be in it,
His place is with the others for whom
there is no room.
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power, because
they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied status of persons,
who are tortured, bombed and exterminated.
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.
- Thomas Merton
Eichenberg, Fritz. “Christmas 1954” (or, “A Christmas Meditation for a Troubled World”).
Goldstein, Matthew. “Landlords Jump the Gun as Eviction Moratorium Wanes.” New York Times, 23 July 2020 (updated 2 September 2020). https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/23/business/evictions-moratorium-cares-act.html
Jones, Zoe Christen. “COVID driving record homelessness figures in NYC, advocates say.” CBS News, 11 December 2020. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/covid-driving-record-homelessness-figures-in-nyc-advocates-say/ar-BB1bR7TU
Merton, Thomas. "No Room in the Inn.”
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