[An Advent devotional piece written for the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.]
“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
While the weary masses crowded the streets of Bethlehem, filling every inn and household to overflowing, the shepherds were probably the only ones left on the outskirts of town, keeping watch over their flocks as darkness descended and a hush settled over the fields. I imagine it was quite the contrast – the hubbub of a town swollen to accommodate the imperial decree and the silence of what appeared to be another unremarkable night spent watching and waiting. It’s no wonder that a city already over its capacity couldn’t offer a space of welcome or that bleary eyed travelers didn’t have eyes to see the miraculous or that the clamor of the marketplace drowned out the angelic announcement of good news of great joy. After all, we miss a great deal when we’re standing at the center of a story. Those with ears to hear are more often the people on the margins, people with a bit more perspective, people who have a little more room in their hearts for the unexpected.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that when the angels appeared and the glory of the Lord shone around them, God chose the lowly shepherds to be the awe-struck audience. “For unto you a Savior is born,” the angels proclaimed. God became flesh and dwelt among us for people just like you, people who find themselves on the underside of the powers and principalities of this world, people who are disadvantaged or oppressed, people who long for God’s justice and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s why the angels began with the reminder not to be afraid. They knew that the One whose birth they lauded would upend our human systems of power and privilege, the percussive politics of domination on which our world turns. As we sing in the Canticle of the Turning (G2G #100): “From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears every tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more for the food they can never earn. There are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.” The angels knew there would be a reckoning, and they understood that only those already on the outside would have the nerve to hear such news, let alone call it good. Their words to the shepherds echo through the ages, giving us the courage to welcome Christ into a broken and fearful world as we hear the voices of peoples long silenced and work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. “Don’t be afraid,” they tell us, “God’s begun something miraculous, and believe it or not, you’ve got a part to play!” Amen.