Prepare O Bethlehem – The Inn, The Cave, The Purpose & The Message

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Today heaven and earth are united for Christ is born

Today God has come to earth and man ascends to heaven

Today, God who by nature cannot be seen,

Is seen in the flesh for our sake.

Let us glorify Him, crying:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace!

Thy coming has brought peace to us:

Glory to Thee, our Savior!

– Stikhera on the Litya Great Compline for Christmas

(Eastern Orthodox Church)

And she gave birth to her first born Son and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:7

Nativity

Dear Brothers & Sisters in Christ Jesus

As we celebrate the feast of Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, I would love to share some thoughts that have been in my mind. This is my Christmas message to you all for this year. The message might seem quite long, but I assure you that you will surely enjoy the read.

THE INN

In the Nativity story, a woman who was about to give birth to a child, and her betrothed, went from inn to inn, asking for lodging and help. There was no room in any inn.  But even more poignant, there was no room in anyone’s heart to extend charity and help to a woman at her moment of delivery.  How could a city so filled with people not have had even one room, even one bit of charity for someone in need?  Never mind that this woman was not just anyone, but God’s chosen vessel for our salvation.

In the Mexican culture, there is a Christmas-time tradition called Las Posadas.  In this tradition, a couple dressed up as Mary and Joseph go from home to home, asking if there is any room at “the inn”.  Each home takes on the role of an inn in Bethlehem.  They are rebuffed each time until they reach the home that has been designated as “the inn,” at which point they are allowed in and a celebration ensues.

Imagine your heart as an inn—there are lots of rooms in it as there would be at an inn.  At many inns, there are economy rooms, rooms with a view, rooms with a balcony, perhaps even a penthouse, or top floor room.   Some rooms are more expensive and more lavish, others more simple.

The inn of your heart is similar.  There are things in life, like relationships or family, that tug at our heart strings, and they often get the biggest rooms at the inn of our hearts.  Careers get large rooms as well. Material possessions occupy space.  So do our friends.   Hobbies and things that bring us joy have a place, perhaps a smaller room, but there is still a place for them.  Friday nights out with friends, Saturdays in front of the TV watching sports, the Sunday afternoon barbecue, they all find accommodations.   Hopefully one’s heart is big enough that there is a room for charity.  The question for today is which room does the Lord get in your heart?  Is it the biggest one?  Or the economy room?  Is there a room for prayer? Worship? Charity?  Are these rooms well-kept or in need of a remodel?

If your heart or your life is like an inn in Bethlehem, is there room in your inn for the Lord, or have all the spaces been filled with other things?  In order to have Christ in your life, there needs to be not only room in “your inn,” but the committed Christian offers Christ the best room, the first portion, of your life. The committed Christian has a rooms for charity, for prayer, for scripture reading, for obedience to the commandments.  As we journey through Advent and prepare to celebrate the Nativity, it is a good time to clean the rooms of your heart and of your life, to make sure there is room for Christ in them.

Because just as they do at Las Posadas in Mexico, Christ comes to knock on the door of your heart every day.  Do we turn Him away, saying there is no room at the inn, that all the rooms have been filled with other “things”?  Or do we welcome Him with joy?  Do we give Him the economy room?  Or do we give Him the biggest and the best?  Spend some time today evaluating how you spend your time.  And reflect seriously on which rooms Christ occupies in the inn of your heart.  Just like they upgrade rooms at hotels for special guests, consider giving an upgrade in your heart to Christ, the most special guest of all.

THE CAVE

In every Nativity story that we have heard or every Icon that we see which shows the scene in Bethlehem, we know that when Mary and Joseph searched for a place to stay and help, they are told that there are no rooms available. They are, however, told that there is a stable out back and are shown to a stable where the animals are kept, where Jesus is born and laid in a manger. Every Nativity scene appearing under every Christmas tree shows a barn with straw roof and wooden walls with Jesus lying in the manger.

Yet, every Orthodox icon shows Jesus Christ incarnate in a cave, in the desert, outside of Bethlehem. Why a cave? Why not the traditionally depicted stable or barn?nativity-icon

We are not told in scripture whether the birth took place in a barn or a cave, only that there was no room in the inn.  There are two reasons that a cave is shown in Orthodox icons, rather than a barn.  The first is actually historical.  At the time of the Nativity, animals were not kept sheltered in wooden barns, but in caves and recesses in the hills.  The second is symbolic—the cave that is shown in the icons is traditionally surrounded by sharp and steep rocks, which represent the cruel world into which Jesus was Incarnate.  The space inside the cave looks peaceful and welcoming.  The cave represents heaven.  It is a peaceful respite from the world.

There is an icon that shows the cave, with the manger and the baby Jesus, with just the animals surrounding the manger and the star overhead. The theme of this icon is “Creation worships the Creator.”  The significance of the feast of the Nativity is that the Creator came to live with His creation.  And not only was there no room in any inn, but there was no room in any place made by human hands to hold the Creator of those hands.  So, the Creator came to be part of His creation in a cave He Himself created.

In the last reflection, it was mentioned that in icons, the manger is depicted symbolically as a tomb.  Historically, the manger was the wooden trough from where the animals were eating.  Most likely it would have been filled with hay, which horses were eating.  Again, there was no bed made by human beings that could hold the Creator.  So, He was laid on straw, in wood that He created.  His birth also reflects the most humble of beginnings.  And it begins a ministry where Jesus would tell His followers:  “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve.”  (Mark 10: 43-45)

The cave reflects peace, surrounded by danger.  The manger shows humility.  Later on, when we discuss how all of creation worshiped and brought gifts to the Creator in its midst, we will note that the earth itself worshiped the Creator, and for a gift, the earth offered a cave.

For today, examine peace and humility in your life.  Does your life favor what is grandiose or simple?  Are you more boastful or humble?  If the cave reflects peace surrounded by danger, are you able to find inner peace in a life that is continually dangerous?  Or have you succumbed to the dangers of the world?  Today’s verse is an important reminder of what is truly important—the virtues of peace and humility will go a long way in helping you grow as a Christian this Advent and far beyond it.

THE PURPOSE

If you look closely at many icons of the Nativity, you will notice that the manger is not a straw-filled wooden trough as we see in most Nativity displays around town.  Rather, it resembles a casket or tiny tomb.  The swaddling bands are not like the large cloth that we swaddle our children with, but rather are the burials band used to bind the bodies of the dead.  Why do the icons depict this?  It’s to make clear from the beginning the purpose of the Incarnation of Christ.  His purpose in coming to be among us was to die for our sins.  It all leads to the Cross and the Tomb.  This is the reason Christ came to earth.  This is the reason God incarnated His Only-Begotten Son.

When you enroll in high school or college, what year do they label your class?  It’s the year you are scheduled to graduate.  I entered college for my masters in 2010.  I went in as the class of 2012, which ended up being the year I finished.  And why do schools label classes by the year they finish, rather than the year they start?  Because when you go to school, the purpose for your attendance is in order to finish.  So, even from the first day of school, the focus is on the last.  Sure, the journey is long, and fun, and important, but the focus of the journey is its end, not the journey itself, certainly not the beginning of it. is the reason God incarnated His Only-Begotten Son.

Our Christian life is the same. God’s purpose in putting us here is so we can GRADUATE from this life, into eternal life.  No one can get to heaven if they haven’t lived on earth.  Just like no one can graduate from college if they never spend a day in school.  So, every day of our life, there should be a thought given to eternal life.  This is why we hear at every Divine Liturgy (and in the daily vespers), a petition that speaks to us of “A Christian end to our lives, peaceful without shame and suffering and a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ,” so that this thought of our destination inspires how we spend our present journey.

So, take some time every day, whether it is Christmas, or Advent, or the middle of summer, to work on your salvation, think about where you are headed for eternal life.  So many people plan for retirement, but not for eternity.  Spend time each day through prayer, meditation on scripture, obedience to the commandments and charity towards others.  Spend a lifetime doing that and you will be in good shape for that accounting at the awesome judgment seat of Christ.

The Resurrection couldn’t happen without the Nativity.  However, the Nativity without the Resurrection would make Christ into an incredible teacher and healer, but not our Savior.   An incredible life without Christ is just that, an incredible life that will one day come to an end.  A life with Christ and a life in Christ is like going to school—you will be there for a while, you will even make good memories and have good times, but one day you will graduate to something bigger and better.

The purpose of Christ’s Incarnation is apparent from the Nativity.  God’s purpose for our life is apparent from our birth as well! to the dangers of the world?  Today’s verse is an important reminder of what is truly important—the virtues of peace and humility will go a long way in helping you grow as a Christian this Advent and far beyond it.

Before Your birth, O Lord, the hosts of angels already perceived the mystery.  They were struck with wonder and trembled, for though You adorn the heavens with stars, You are now well-pleased to be born as a Babe.  You hold the ends of the earth in Your hands, but now You are laid in a manger of dumb beasts.  Yet all these things fulfilled Your saving plan, by which Your compassion was revealed to us.  Christ of great mercy, glory to You!

So, take some time every day, whether it is Christmas, or Advent, or the middle of summer, to work on your salvation, think about where you are headed for eternal life.  So many people plan for retirement, but not for eternity.  Spend time each day through prayer, meditation on scripture, obedience to the commandments and charity towards others.  Spend a lifetime doing that and you will be in good shape for that accounting at the awesome judgment seat of Christ.

The Resurrection couldn’t happen without the Nativity.  However, the Nativity without the Resurrection would make Christ into an incredible teacher and healer, but not our Savior.   An incredible life without Christ is just that, an incredible life that will one day come to an end.  A life with Christ and a life in Christ is like going to school—you will be there for a while, you will even make good memories and have good times, but one day you will graduate to something bigger and better.

The purpose of Christ’s Incarnation is apparent from the Nativity.  God’s purpose for our life is apparent from our birth as well! to the dangers of the world?  Today’s verse is an important reminder of what is truly important—the virtues of peace and humility will go a long way in helping you grow as a Christian this Advent and far beyond it.

THE MESSAGE

I’m sure during the period of the census in Bethlehem, there were people from all walks of life, all economic classes.  There were well-to-do people who got the most expensive rooms in the most expensive inns, who rode the best donkeys and camels.  With so many people descending on Bethlehem for the census, there were undoubtedly parties and family gatherings, reunions of friends, loud music, dancing and good food.

The shepherds were among the poorest of the people.  They were not part of the Bethlehem social scene.  Their work was done around the clock, in anonymity, with little compensation.  I’m sure very few parents of the time dreamed for their children to be shepherds.

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Yet, God chose these “poor shepherds” (the First Noel) to hear the good news.  He chose to bless the shepherds to hear a multitude of the heavenly angels singing God’s praises.  And when the Shepherds told people what they had heard and seen, in a sense, He chose them to become the first “evangelists,” the first to share the good news.

Why these Shepherds?  First, the message of Christ is for all people.  He didn’t take it to the high and mighty, but to the lowly.  Christ’s Nativity inaugurated the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, but He “reigns” with humility.  So the message was given first to the most humble of people, simple shepherds.  This is good news indeed, because the message of Christ IS for everyone.  And that does not include only every socio-economic level.  It includes every spiritual level:

If you’ve memorized the Christmas story or can’t remember most of the details, Christ’s message is for you.

If you read the Bible every day, or have never read it before, Christ’s message is for you!

If you pray every day, or if you’ve never said a genuine prayer, Christ’s message is for you!

If Christ is the focus of your life, or if you are just starting your relationship with Him, Christ’s message is for you!

Ok, so what is the message?  The answer comes from the shepherds as well.  One of the ways Christ reveals Himself is as “the Good Shepherd.”  In John 10: 11-15, we read:

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leave the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father know me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus uses this image because all Christians are like a flock of sheep.  Jesus is our Shepherd.  Jesus protects the flock from “wolves” and all harm.  When one sheep is lost, like a good shepherd, He goes in search of the lost sheep.  Most important, like a good shepherd keeps his flock together until they get safely to their pen at the end of the day, Jesus keeps His flock together and provides for our safety until we reach the permanent safety of heaven at the end of our lives.

I hope that the images sticking in your mind are not the loud and raucous parties of Bethlehem, but the peace of the cave and the safety of the pen.  For many people, if you asked them where do you want to end up—a cave, a pen or a party—the answer most certainly would be the party.  The message of Christ is that we want to end up in the cave and safely in the pen.  It is in humility that we experience Christ.  The message is for everyone!

Dear brethren, this Christmas, let us give room for Christ in our inns called life, welcoming Him to dwell in us. Let our hearts be like the cave where peace dwells.Wishing you all a very blessed Christmas.

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