No Room at the Inn for Grown Ups

Clip from St. Paul's Children's Christmas Story

All Credit to St. Paul’s Church, Auckland, New Zealand

In her book Acedia & Me, writer Kathleen Norris recounts a story that is at once heartbreaking and hopeful:

I once observed a girl about four years old find a coin on the floor of a post office. ‘Look, Momma, a penny,’ she said. Her mother, busy with the clerk at the window, mumbled an acknowledgement. The girl put the penny back on the floor, in a different location. ‘Look, Momma,’ she said again, ‘I found another one!’ She kept at it until she had found five pennies, each one of them ‘new’.

It’s Christmas time, and as often happens, I see much of myself in the preoccupied parent at the post office. Family engagements follow on the heels of work obligations. Commercialized nostalgia, and the familiar Christmas songs employed to soften its edge, leave me feeling disconnected. And the culture war pieces – War-on-Christmas debating, gun control politicking, fiscal cliff hand-wringing…

***

Amidst all this, thankfully, a voice cries out, “Look, a new penny!”

 

The short of it: a parish in New Zealand got a group of children to reenact the Nativity story. The story is familiar. The costumes are basic. In its simplicity and sincerity it is utterly charming.

Watching it brings me back to my own grade school Nativity play (in which I had one line: “I am sorry, the inn is full. But there is room out back in the stable”). At eight, I delivered the line with a minimum of ironic detachment, from all the unpleasant stuff that we adults now fret over. It was an age when Christmas was about getting presents. It was about wearing itchy Cosby sweaters to family parties, and playing with cousins. And somewhere in there, we heard about Jesus coming as a little baby. Each year was the same; each year was new, magical, exciting.

A voice cries out in the wilderness, “Look, a new penny.”

***

But the Nativity Kiwis are more than just a feel-good boost of youthful cheer to counteract the holiday malaise. They do more: they show us how to prepare for Jesus’ coming. The great Emmanuel Himself made it clear: “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

While Jesus comes to us each year (day, minute, etc.)… I don’t always come to Jesus as I should. I’ve got excuses, and they all sound legit:

Because I’m distracted,

busy with work,

disappointed that the holidaze isn’t magical and exciting like it used to be.

Because I’m grown up now, and don’t have the luxury of being a carefree kid. Let the kids enjoy Christmas; we adults have real stuff to attend to.

A voice cries out in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord.”

Life in 2012 is complicated, we hear and repeat. But each culture and generation must face its own challenges. Our culture’s demons keep us vaguely distracted, dissatisfied, and anxious despite our comfort and bounty. We are encouraged by technology to “stay connected” with everyone but the people in front of us. We are adrift from ourselves.

Or so the despairing adult voices tell us. Tell us often enough that we believe them.

A voice cries out – cries out – in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord.”

***

Amidst a national tragedy, and the pressures surrounding Christmas, an innocent child tugs at our jacket. We can politely acknowledge it, and get back to being our busied, complex selves. Or…

Or… we can pause from business as usual. We can quiet the voices of distraction. We can look down, and rejoice with the child who found a new penny again this year, as if for the first time. We can watch those little Kiwi kids retelling the story of another child.

“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel”  which means, “God with us.”

Emmanuel. God, as a child, choosing us. And we, childlike, choosing God.