Every family tells and retells the same stories – it is a bit of a ritual really – we know them inside out, but we like to hear them, and perhaps we like to tell them too. We don’t need to hear them to learn how the story ends or to jog our memory. We tell them because they are a part of us, they encompass our relationships, the people we love and who mean the world to us.
The story of the nativity, the birth of Christ, is no different.
We know this story: Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, the three wise men. We know about how there was no room at the inn. And we know about how there was a manger.
It would be an important story without any of those things, because this is the heart of it: “God loved us so much that God became one of us, so that we all might know God’s love and one another.”
But that’s not the way the Gospel tells it. It wasn’t enough for the Gospels to just say “he was born” or even “he was born in Bethlehem”. They tell us he was born in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.
A manger was a sort of container for the hay that the animals ate. It wasn’t a crib, or a bed, or anything like that. It was perhaps the most unexpected resting place for a newly born Messiah.
For God, on God’s first night as one of us. But it is important to the story.
We are told about the visitors to the birth – shepherds, angels, wise men – even though we know their visit came some time later – it all gets squashed in together – like some of our own family stories no doubt.
The Christmas story – and the power it has for us – comes not from the facts of what happened, even if we could verify exactly how it all unfolded, – it comes from the truth at the heart of this story, and how that truth informs who we are.
That God in the form of a tiny, new born baby came into the world for us. He didn’t even have a bed – but slept in the place the animals ate from. He was born into poverty, far from his parents’ home and was soon to be a refugee.
Who is this God who came into our world in such a way?
Into a world of risk, need and uncertainty?
His story tells of a God who comes into the mess and insecurity and strangeness of the world to come alongside us – a God who does not leave us on our own, a God who knows what we go through – from the darkest times, the frightening things of life and the heart-breaking things to the joy and wonder and beauty of life.
Sometimes people say Christmas is for children – I don’t agree – Christmas is for us all, but perhaps it is when we look with the eyes and the heart and the sense of wonder and expectation of a child, the miracle of Christmas comes into focus.
Christ still comes into this world. Christmas still happens. It didn’t just happen once, it happens all the time.
God knocks at our doors and we are asked if there is room in the inn. And sometimes we close the door and say “there’s no place for you here”.
But sometimes, even when we’re not sure we want to open that door up, we do anyway.
And that matters. Because Christmas may be about the story that we read, it may be about Mary and Joseph and the baby and the manger and no room at the inn. But that story teaches us about more than just an event that happened centuries ago.
When the tree is put away, when Christmas dinner has been eaten, when the nativity sets go back into their boxes, the ultimate test of how well we have celebrated Christmas will not be in what was under the tree or anything like that. It will be in how well we opened our hearts, and let that Christmas message in.