When we talk about places in the Christmas story, of course the first one that comes to mind is Bethlehem. After all, this is where all the action is - the inn, the manger, the star, the shepherds, the Christ child. It all happens in Bethlehem.
But trying telling that, on Christmas Eve, to the persons who were actually there.
It's true that there was a lot going on in Bethlehem, a lot more than we often remember when we tell the Christmas story. There was, as we know, no room at the inn, but this wasn't just a coincidence. It wasn't just a bit of bad luck that the inn would be full on the night Joseph and Mary so happened through the region. It wasn't just that they pulled into town on a night when many others had also pulled into town, that the little town wasn't expecting so many guests.
The little town was, in fact, expecting more. They knew their inns would be crowded, if not full. They knew they would be over capacity. They knew there would be travelers that they couldn't accommodate. They might not have known that one of them would be a very pregnant young woman, which leads to the compassion of the innkeeper to make room where he could. But Bethlehem knew this was coming.
Because everyone else was there for the same reason that Mary and Joseph were - the census. A census had been ordered, and that meant that everyone had to go back to his hometown to be counted among his own people. Since Joseph's people were from Bethlehem, Joseph made the trek, taking his little family-to-be with him to be counted among his numbers. And all of those people in the inn? They were there to be counted, too.
It's fair to say that many more travelers were likely not at the inn. They were probably at the homes of family members, sleeping in corners and on roofs and wherever they could find a place to lay a makeshift bed for a few days.
There were reunions going on everywhere, bread being baked and broken, livestock being slaughtered. Laughter and joy and the sharing of stories as everyone caught up with one another, being in the flesh far exceeding whatever letters or messages they had received during their time apart. The city was abuzz with all of the things that make our Christmases so...well, so Christmas-y and exactly what they are, except, of course, that no one in Bethlehem knew that the Christ was coming.
And they were all so busy that they probably missed it.
When you've been traveling for weeks, maybe even months, to get home, when you've been wrapped up in preparations to see your family for the first time in a very long time, when you basically collapsed at the inn the night before and woke up with visions of breakfast and another day of travel and reunion, when your thoughts are all on the things you're doing and still have to do and the places you've been and where you're going and who is going to be there and how you're going to make it all work, who notices a baby crying in a barn? Star or no star.
You might even look up and think to yourself, oh, what a beautiful star. Then saddle up your donkey and keep going.
A lot of our Christmases take place in Bethlehem. A lot of them come with the hustle and bustle and movement of the season, the visions of family and the reunions and the breaking of breads. There's so much going on that a lot of us miss it entirely, only days later realizing that maybe something incredible was happening in that barn. And that at the very least, maybe we should have taken a few minutes to stop by and see the baby.
This Advent, let us be mindful of the ways that we're prone to miss Christmas. Let us be aware of our own busyness and of the pressures the push in on us and try to convince us there's so much to do, try to keep our attention on the inn and not on the barn. Let us be purposeful in making time to go out and see the baby.
After all, the Christ child is Christmas. It's why we're here.
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