"And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” This little bit of narrative from the gospel of Luke has been like a splinter lodged in my heart.
Israel had been calling out to God, and God radically, inexplicably, draws near. And there’s no room. At the center of our nativity scenes (and featured on our Advent banner at the Abbey) is the scandal of this story. Jesus Christ, our savior, is born in a feeding trough because there was no other space ready to receive him. This is why God's people need Advent, because Advent is a time to prepare. Advent is an invitation into hearing the prophets of old tell us to “get ready.” (Here are some excerpts from our lectionary readings this Advent)
"Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
"Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God... He will come and save you.”
Advent is the season where we learn to wait for and welcome “the coming.” It’s about creating time and space to receive our Lord. It’s about preparing Him room. It's a way of saying that, this Advent, we want to lean into the tangible practices of waiting and welcoming God.
"Welcome” has been a watchword for me lately, as Jody has been sharing more and more about her ministry with Syrian refugees. A few months ago, our church sent Jody off to Lebanon with prayer and some art supplies so that she could be an instrument of God’s peace to people who have experienced unfathomable loss. When she returned and began reporting on her time there, I remember being both touched by the incredible experience she had but insulated from her stories because they involved people who lived “over there.”
But then, recently, she has been telling me stories of how she has been spending time with Syrian refugees who have just arrived and are living in motels and tiny apartments in El Cajon and City Heights. Suddenly the “over there” was “here.” She invited me to “come and see” and so Mike with daughter Abby, and I, headed down with a van precariously full of things for the refugees' new life here. In our own small way, we wanted to bring them gifts of welcome. We went down with the plan to meet many different families scattered throughout the area, and to try to drop off something at each place. Looking back on it, it was a naive plan.
When we first arrived at Khaled’s house, I was concerned with what we needed to unload, what customs I needed to be mindful of, and how I just desperately wanted to communicate a sense of welcome to people who had been displaced from a true home for so long. As I walked in though, something unexpected happened. All the family members in the house came immediately to gather in the family room. Tables were rearranged around where we sat, chairs were brought up around us. In a moment’s time, hot tea was set before us and the family was gathered to meet us - to hear our story.
This pattern continued throughout our next stops. So much so, that even when we went in with the plan to “only stay for a minute” Mike and I found ourselves with hot tea in our hands, being ushered to another table. On another visit, a Syrian husband and wife spoke a beautiful Arabic phrase of invitation to me, saying “you are welcomed like a brother and all we have is yours.” I had been with them for all of 22 minutes. Throughout this process it was no longer clear to me who was welcoming whom.
And so, in these past few weeks, I’ve caught a glimpse of what it might look like to "prepare Him room" in the way that I have been welcomed by these families. Families who know what it’s like to not be welcomed. These refugees have been routinely told “there’s no room for you here” in their home country of Syria, and in camps in neighboring Jordan. And yet, here and now, they welcomed me with all they had.
It's given new meaning to me when Paul writes to the Romans "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you…” Jesus, the one who knew no welome becomes the consummate welcomer. The one who was told "there's no room for you" is the one who tells His disciples "I am preparing room for you."(John 14:3)
I need an Advent to ponder these mysteries. I need an Advent to learn how to welcome even as I am welcomed by God and others. I need an Advent to heed the call to "get ready." And so, will you join me in leaning into this Advent and preparing Him room?
header art: The Nativity by John August Swanson