When it comes to a children’s Nativity Play, everyone wants to play the part of Mary or Joseph, or at the very least, to be an angel or one of the Shepherds. Nobody wants to be the Innkeeper! Nobody wants to be the one to turn Mary and Joseph away. In recent days I have developed a newfound sympathy for the poor innkeeper. Each time people ask me about what will happen with Christmas Masses, I find myself empathising more and more with his plight because, this year, I fear that not only will there be no room at the inn but sadly, there will not be enough room in our Churches either!
Traditionally, all our Christmas Masses, and even the additional Masses we add to our programme, are packed full. This is wonderful to see. At Christmas, more than at any other time of the year, we come together as a community in and through our carols and our prayers, in worship and wonder, in joy and thanksgiving. In normal circumstances each of our Masses would accommodate 300 people or more. This year, restrictions mean that we can only have a maximum of 50 people at any of our Masses. Inevitably this means that not everyone who would like to join us for Christmas Mass will be able to do so, at least not in person. How can we resolve such a dilemma? The truth is: ‘I don’t know!’ The diocese will offer some guidance over the coming days and, on Monday night, our Parish Assembly will explore how we can best respond to the challenge. We know that there is no easy or perfect solution that can or will satisfy everyone. Our overriding priority must be and will be to keep everybody safe and to minimise risk. Within that objective we will do everything we can to help our community to celebrate the birth of our Lord in a prayerful, faithful and meaningful way. During this most extraordinary of years we have learned to adapt like never before. We have adjusted to new ways of doing things in all aspects and areas of our lives. Likewise, how we celebrate Christmas will necessarily be different this year. Covid19 means this will be a very different Christmas in our homes and in our Churches. Just because it is different doesn’t mean it can’t be special.
So, this year, far from judging the innkeeper, let us embrace his open spirit. Through no fault of his own, he couldn’t offer Mary and Joseph what they were looking for. But neither did he simply say ‘No!’. He dared to think ‘outside of the box’ and he offered them the best he could in the circumstances: a lowly stable. It wasn’t ideal but it was something. And that was all that God needed to be born among us. This year, maybe the innkeeper can teach us that what matters is not where we will celebrate Christmas but rather, what we celebrate at Christmas: the gift of Emmanuel, ‘God with us.’ Whatever else this Christmas may bring, hopefully we can and will experience that gift of God’s presence with us, in us and all around us.