Friday, December 24, 2010
The Tale of the Innkeeper's Wife: A Sermon for Christmas Eve
“It’s all about the hospitality,” he says, my husband, Amos. He says that all the time. I suppose it makes sense. We’re innkeepers. What else would it be about? Well, I’ll tell you what else it would be about: it’s all about the business. It’s a business! Sometimes you have to shake that man to remind him: we’re not doing this for our health.
Perhaps I should introduce myself. I am Rachel, and my husband and I are innkeepers in Bethlehem, the great City of David. Oh, it’s not so “great.” Just a thousand souls or so. But every so often, when the Roman bigwigs get it into their minds that they want a count of us, just to see how much trouble we’ll be, or where they need to send their regiments and legions, Bethlehem swells to be a city of many, many more than that. It’s a great homecoming: everyone of the house and lineage of David, which is to say, the tribe of Judah, comes home to Bethlehem. Amos and I, we’re not from Bethlehem. We’re of a different tribe, the tribe of Benjamin. And the tribe of Benjamin—let’s just say, we don’t have quite the reputation for hospitality of our brother tribes. Maybe that’s why Amos has such an issue with it. Maybe he feels he has something to prove.
It’s like those guests we had, in the time of that last census. Oh my, the city was packed. I had never seen it so filled with travelers. Now, most travelers, when they come to their ancestral city, well, of course, they stay with family. But occasionally, you have a family that’s not—well, let’s say, they’re not so friendly with one another. Let’s be realists here, shall we? It happens all the time. So, that’s where we come in! Some poor travelers come all the way from Bethany or Jerusalem or even, God help them, some backwater like Cana or Nazareth—and who puts them up for the night or the week or however long it takes the Romans to count them on their little beads? We do! Amos Ben Joseph! And wife. Of course.
And children. We have five, thanks be to God, five who have lived beyond the age of two, at any rate. The children work with their father and me in the inn, they tend our little garden and see to the livestock. It’s a good life, an honest living. And it’s a service that is needed.
So the town was filled to overflowing, and for the first time ever we had to turn away traveler after traveler. A lot of families having squabbles that year, I suppose. Or maybe our people are exploding in number! Who knows? But day in and day out for two weeks, Amos and I were forced to say, “No, I’m sorry, we are full—try Jacob and Naomi down the street.”
I remember I was working in the kitchen that night, trying to provide a decent meal for about thirty hungry souls when in walks Amos, with that look on his face. That look he gets when he has to tell me something he knows I’m not going to like.
“What is it?” I asked. I was kneading dough for bread. I’m sure my face was flushed, which also happens when I get angry. I wasn’t angry. Yet. He hesitated. Amos is a good man, but he can be timid. Especially with me.
“What is it?” I asked. I was so busy. I had no time for some great complication that probably wouldn’t matter in the end. I had so many things to do!
Amos straightened himself up and said, “We have taken in some additional guests. You will find them in the stable. See that they have a decent meal tonight.” And he turned on his heel and walked away.
Or, tried to. “Just a minute, husband,” I stopped him, and he turned around to face me again. I see that very same look on our children sometimes. That look of almost having gotten away with something.
“What in the world are you telling me? The busiest night of our year, the we are full to overflowing, and you get it into your mind to put someone up with the cows and the goats?” Then I thought a moment. Maybe Amos was a good business man after all. I was suddenly eager to hear what could possibly have persuaded him to open our stable to travelers. “What—did they offer you some exorbitant amount of money? Did they give you a denarius?”
Amos shook his head. And all pretense left his face, all false bravado. He was just the man I married, just for a moment. A deeply kind face, my Amos has. Kinder than his wife.
“Rachel, they were so poor. A husband and a wife. And… she was in a bad way.” My Amos, five children, and he still can’t bring himself to speak frankly about the facts of life. I knew instantly what he meant.
“The girl is with child?” He nodded vigorously. “Is it… soon?” He shrugged his shoulders. “Could be.” I nodded, still kneading.
“And there’s something else,” Amos said. I could feel myself bristling with irritation. “What? What else?” I snapped. Amos looked down. He was twisting a piece of cloth in his hands. “His name was Joseph, like my father.” Then he looked up at me again. “It’s all about hospitality, Rachel. What kind of people would we be to turn them away?”
I shook my head. It’s all about the business, except when it isn’t. Then I looked up into my husband’s kind face. I suppose even we Benjaminites have learned a thing or two about hospitality. “Fetch me one of the girls,” I said, and he nodded and ducked out of the kitchen.
I placed six fat fragrant loaves on the stone in the oven, and stepped out to the well to wash my hands and face. Hannah, my eldest came running to me, a little out of breath. She had been serving the guests in the great room. Hannah is a good girl, smart, and ready to be helpful. Truth be told, she should be married by now—she’s almost fifteen. But I have been dragging my feet. It’s good to have a good daughter by your side.
“Mama?” she said, expectantly.
I placed my hand on her shoulder. “Hannah, there are guests in the stable, a husband and wife, and the wife is going to have a baby. Go to them, see what they need.”
She nodded, turned and ran. My Hannah. I know I can depend on her.
A few short minutes later she came running back. “Mama,” she said. “I think you’d better come.” My daughter does not panic. If Hannah felt it was urgent, I should listen to her.
“Check the loaves in about an hour,” I said, “unless they smell done before that. See to the guests in the great room.” I smiled at her. “I know you can do it.” She smiled back at me.
I ran to our closet and took an armful of soft cloths, and I went to the well for water. I ducked my head back into the kitchen. “And Hannah—warm up some water for me. Not too hot.” She nodded, and pulled out a large pot. I took a good sharp knife from the table, and I was ready.
As I headed towards the stable I was shaking my head. For the goodness and kindness of my husband, tonight I would be a midwife. This was a first. Not midwifing a birth—no woman gets to be my age in Bethlehem without standing in on a birth or two or ten. No, the first was—they were strangers. It was in our stable. I said a quick prayer of thanksgiving that Amos and I had taught our boys to keep a tidy stable; I knew there would be fresh straw at least, for a bed for the mother.
I stepped into the dim light. There was a lantern near the door, and another at the far end, which is where they were, the wife already lying on the ground with her back to the wall, the husband hovering nervously over her. I looked around at the animals… they were restless. They knew what was happening. Animals have unfailing instincts about birth and death, and they lend their sympathy to all creatures going through the great passages.
I approached, and I could see she was already in hard labor—she probably had been for some time. I smiled at the husband, in a way I hoped was reassuring. The wife—young thing, high color, grimacing with pain and trying as hard as she could not to make any noise—looked up at me with, not fear exactly, something more like—hope. The husband startled me by his insistence on staying, though I tried to shoo him out more than once. He seemed—very attached to his wife, which is always refreshing. At some point Hannah crept in with the basin of warm water. She stayed by my side, wordlessly taking directions from me, helping as if she’d been doing it for thirty years instead of just an hour.
What happened next is what nearly always happens. The hard, hard work of bring a new life into the world. She was brave. Far more brave than I was at her age, and I had my mother and my sisters beside me. As the night wore on and the moment grew nearer, her face changed so that—I swear, this is true—it was filled with a kind of light. I have never before seen anything like it, or anything since.
And then all was silent, as the mother lay back in the straw, breathless, pale again. I took the babe, and showed the mother how to wrap him in clean strips of cloth. I held him, for just a moment. I saw it in his face too—that light, I swear it stopped breath in my lungs. And then I handed him to his mother. I left them, and the father had curled himself around the mother, who curled herself around the child. Just an ordinary babe, an ordinary family, after all. As Hannah and I left I realized I was trembling. I wondered why it affected me so much. Why it affects me still.
It was already early in the morning by the time we returned to our room, where we found Amos awake, waiting for us. I must have looked tired; he put his arm around me without saying a word. I was still filled with the wonder of the birth—the accident of it all, wandering travelers who just happened to find their way to us, my husband who just happened to have a soft spot for young couples in distress, and for men named “Joseph” like his father. And me, called upon to be midwife for these poor strangers. It just seemed the right thing to do. In the end, it changed me. I’m still not sure how.
It’s all about the business. That’s what I like to tell Amos when it seems he’s grown too softhearted to make tough decisions. But maybe Amos is right. Maybe it’s all about opening your home, opening your heart to the weary, needy traveler. Opening your life to a young family, to a child in need. Maybe it’s only when we do that, that we can truly open our hearts to the holy One, to God. Thanks be. Amen.