I have to admit that I`m a great fan on Nativity plays. Perhaps, like me, you have your own memories of taking part in one- I recall being an exceptionally mean King Herod! Or maybe you`ve been the proud parent watching your offspring `tread the boards` for the first time as Mary, Joseph- shepherd, wise man or, such is ingenuity of our teachers- perhaps, third camel on the left. And Nativity Plays can be great occasions- full of sentimentality and pride- but also considerable pathos and insight into the gospel story as I hope to explain.
But I recall one nativity play which really put me on edge. It started with the words: “Welcome to an imaginary world”. At which point I bristled with annoyance at yet another attempt to play down the strong factual base of the Gospel.
But before jumping off at the deep end I sat and had a think about that word `imagination`. Because it`s often used to describe something which is insubstantial. Something defined as imaginary is akin to escapism and make-believe- and this is what got under my skin. But it dawned on me that this is only half of the story and only one side of the power of imagination.
For example, I recently heard of some sports scientists who actively encourage elite sports men and women to use their imagination as part of their preparations. One in particular was inviting a football penalty taker to imagine his way into each step of the penalty- including `watching the ball fly into the net`. I mean, there`s nothing escapist or insubstantial about this. Imagination in this context has results. And this is significant if you`re a England fan.
And then I recalled that there is a very strong Christian tradition of reading the Gospels imaginatively. Of taking a particular passage and imagining oneself as a character within it- and this practice has made Christ more immediate; provided a greater depth of insight into the texts and fed the faith of many down the centuries.
So, as I say, I began to think again- and I changed my view of the Nativity Play. I started to realise Nativity Plays work precisely because of their imaginative potential. I mean many of the things some of us most associate with the Christmas story – many of the things we see in the average Nativity Play are not actually in the Gospel text at all. What we`ve got are substantial works of imagination or embellishments of the Gospel account.
So, for example- the donkey is much enjoyed by many. And there`s never a dry eye when we sing `Little Donkey`- but there`s no mention of a donkey in the Gospel at all. And what about the Innkeeper? I thought. Again, no mention in the Gospels. But on the one hand, what a source of hilarity in many a Nativity Play, as our young ones negotiate the lack of rooms in Bethlehem- and on the other what a helpful way in to the Christmas story.
For what`s being said here through that character we have created, is that someone; some nameless person did what the `People of Israel` collectively failed to do. That is they welcomed the Messiah. This, again unnamed person was the one who made space for the Christ to be born.
So, what I`m saying is that this is a fiction in the best sense of the word- a work of imagination- and it helps us get a handle on something significant. This, I want to suggest, is how the Nativity story can work. There`s the `hook`. In this case it`s about `making space`.
Using our imagination we can speculate that this Innkeeper didn`t know that they were making room for the son of God. On the face of it what they saw was a fairly tired and perhaps anxious young couple about to give birth- but the outcome was the same.
Firstly, this person made room for Mary. Again, we can only imagine what this meant to her. But the prospect, as we imagine it, of having gone door to door in search of a place to give birth and finally being given shelter may well have, as we sometimes say- `restored her faith in humanity`. That someone cared enough to do something about the situation she was in will have mattered greatly.
And perhaps we recognise this kind of experience. When someone gives us the time of day it helps us see that we`re perhaps not living in such a graceless environment after all. And secondly, the welcome for Joseph will also have been significant. We`re told in the Gospels that he was a good and honourable man whose first instinct on hearing of Mary`s pregnancy was to let things go quietly. He comes across as very conventional.
But the act of this Innkeeper we imagine could be seen as sufficient to confirm Joseph in his decision to obey the angelic vision he`d had- and that it was all right for him to act so unconventionally. In other words, this Innkeeper bolstered Joseph`s faith.
So, far from leading us into escapism, reflecting imaginatively on this person we call the Innkeeper, provides us with a deeper insight into the Gospel account. Yes, there`s a lot of speculation going on but we`re helped to make connections between the Gospel and our lived experience- and this is the key.
This is what our Gospel reading is trying to tell us. That our God became and will be known in this very flesh and blood lived experience- and if not here, then not at all. The Innkeeper who created space for Christ encourages us to reflect on those who do this for us- and the ways we can do the same for others.
So, we might take a moment to reflect on our daily pattern- and how we might create space to draw close to Christ and this would be good. But it`s only part of what`s needed and only part of what we`re called to. For beyond the patterns and disciplines of the Christian life, of equal importance is the kind of person we`re becoming. Whether we`re becoming a `spacious` person- someone who opens doors for Christ.
Like the Innkeeper- we may not have the satisfaction of knowing that we `made room for the Son of God` but for example, simply allowing others the space to have their say without interruption, judging or changing the subject can have a profound effect on many to whom no one else will give the time of day.
I would go as far as to say that this may prove to be the most significant thing churches and individual Christians can offer in our day- simply the willingness to `listen`- to create a space. And our Gospel teaches us that it`s into this kind of space where Christ may be encountered. Listening like this conveys that graciousness that, as we say, renews our faith in humanity. It`s this graciousness that helps the overly controlled and controlling person become more open to the new possibilities that God has in store.
You see the Christmas Story works when we listen yes, with our head and all our critical faculties- but also with our heart and our imagination. Can I invite you to pray, this Christmas time with that picture of the Innkeeper- the one who was hospitable to Christ; the gracious one. Pray to become – even if you never know it – to be someone in whom the Spirit of Christ is pleased to dwell- who creates space that others may meet him too.