As a youngster I remember being read Christmas stories of the Nativity. The most prominent memory is that of Mary and Joseph being refused accommodations at the inn in Bethlehem. I thought what a terrible man the innkeeper must have been to refuse giving a room to a poor pregnant girl and her husband, especially since she was carrying baby Jesus!
This memory came back to me the other day from two different sources. First, as I dusted off my Christmas music CDs, I found Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy, by Jason Gray. Track 4 on the CD is titled Rest (The Song of the Innkeeper)1, a story from the perspective of the innkeeper.
Then, I was looking through my library and I found the classic short story, The Innkeeper’s Wife2,by A.J. Cronin, a Scotsman, who, was commissioned to write a Christmas story for the December 21, 1958 issue of The American Weekly magazine. As his title suggests, he chose to write from the wife’s perspective.
After my last post in which I tried to imagine being in the shoes of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, I found myself contemplating the Nativity of our Lord by comparing the perspectives of both the innkeeper and his wife through the lens of these two story tellers. I’d like to invite you to imagine back and make this journey with me:
It’s December in Palestine. There’s a dusting of snow on the ground and a chill in the air.
Residents are under the oppressive thumb of the Roman procurator, Herod, and “forced to worship as idols the deified Emperor set up in the temple.”2 Herod has ordered that all people must go to the temple to register for the census and pay their taxes.
There is a constant stream of people transiting through Bethlehem. Our innkeeper, Elah2, laments, “There were no rooms to rent tonight, the only empty bed is mine, I’m overbooked and overrun, with so many things that must be done, until I’m numb and running blind!”1 He is turning people away.
This has been going on for weeks. Elah and his wife, Seraia2, are running out of food to feed their guests. They’re making money but it is wearing on them. Their marriage is strained and Seraia is getting hints of Elah’s possible infidelity.
It’s been a rough, tense day for the two when a young, pregnant woman and her older husband, cold and dirty with worn robes, come into the inn asking for shelter. Now comes the moment of reckoning – how the proprietors respond to Joseph’s and Mary’s plea.
In Gray’s story, the innkeeper turns the pair away from the inn but leaves us to assume that, with some measure of charity, he offers his stable to Joseph and Mary (“…But at least they won’t be wondering, if they’re sleeping on my stable floor”).
He confesses his belief that his people will be delivered from their current plight by a Messiah, but he alludes that perhaps the busyness of life doesn’t give him the time he needs to pray for it (“As a boy I heard the old men sing, about a Kingdom and a coming King. But keeping books and changing beds put a different song inside my head, and the melody is deafening.”). Then, in his fatigue, the innkeeper makes a desperate plea for deliverance (“I need rest, I need rest, Oh come oh come Emmanuel, with a sword deliver Israel, I need rest!”).
Gray closes his song with a beautiful bit of irony. Believing that the Messiah will be a sword wielding King, it never crosses the innkeeper’s mind that his Savior, and the peace for which he is searching, is lying in a bed of straw in his own manger (“Tonight I can’t get any sleep with those shepherds shouting in the streets. A star is shining much too bright, somewhere I hear a baby cry, and all I want is a little peace.”).
In A.J. Cronin’s short story, he draws us deeper into the event by closely examining the players: Elah, Seraia, and Malthace, one of the hired help and Elah’s supposed mistress.
Seraia, the wife, is introduced as loving, tolerant, and forgiving, but emotionally bruised from the loss of a baby during child-birth which has driven a wedge between her and her husband. Now, Elah has turned his attention to the alluring Malthace leaving Seraia lonely and ignored.
Elah is obviously struggling to cope with the pace of business due to the influx of travelers into Bethlehem. He is gruff, self-centered and bedraggled.
When Mary and Joseph present themselves at the inn looking for a place to stay, Elah angrily turns them away without a shred of charity. Seraia, on the other hand, exhibits compassion for the couple and, through her gentle heart, takes pity on them and leads them to the stable, a small cave cut into the bank opposite the inn, and invites them to shelter there.
The story continues with the birth of Jesus and Seraia befriending the couple, helping them care for the baby Jesus. She retrieves from her room the swaddling clothes she made for her baby, but which were never used, and offers them to Mary for her special baby. Seraia develops a bond with Mary and falls in love with the infant child.
Seraia is observant and notices that ever since the child was born there has been a new bright start in the eastern night sky and it has been moving higher each night. She mentions this to Elah but he is more intent to complain about the racket from the lowly shepherds who have come down from the hills “proclaiming tidings of great joy for all people, crying aloud that light was come into the world, that the glory of the Lord was around them.”
Elah eventually learns that his wife has been sheltering the couple and that their child has been born. He does finally notice the new bright and rising star and soon encounters “three horsemen, richly dressed and of dark complexion” who are perhaps “potentates from the East”. These strange visitors will have nothing to do with him but, instead, head straight for the stable. He notices that each is carrying a rare and valuable gift: one of gold, one of frankincense, and one of myrrh.
Curious, Elah sneaks a peek into the stable and there sees Mary and Joseph, the three esteemed visitors, and Jesus being held by his mother. While he observes the presentation of the gifts, “the child in his mother’s arms moved slightly and turned its gaze full upon him. As that single glance from those innocent and unreproachful eyes, filled with such tenderness and grace, fell upon the innkeeper, he could not sustain it. A shock passed through him, his own glance fell to the ground. Instinctively he turned away and, like one intent only upon escape, went back across the yard as though pursued.”
Elah is shaken. He is suddenly aware of his guilt: his lack of love towards his wife; the absence of charity to the couple in his stable; and his dearth of compassion to everyone else. He makes a commitment to change and set things right. He finds kindness towards Seraia; dismisses Malthace; and makes an attempt to make amends to Mary and Joseph only to find that they have departed because, according to Seraia, “Herod, the procurator, means evil towards the little one.”
The story closes with husband and wife finding peace and restoring their love for each other. Seraia vows to remember and celebrate the anniversary of the birth of this special child. And, in a strange twist, the innkeepers are recompensed for their hospitality when they find, left behind in the manger, the King’s gift of gold in the rough shape of a cross.
Both Gray and Cronin present very imaginative stories in their own right. In Gray’s, the innkeeper was so set on believing their savior would be a mighty warrior king that he never opened his heart to God incarnate. And, in Cronin’s, the innkeeper would have met the same fate had it not been for his forgiving and loving wife who provided shelter to the couple. Through her the opportunity was created for him to gaze upon the Christ child, Who ultimately returned love to his heart.
As I get closer to Christmas, I know Jesus has looked me in the eye and helped me evaluate my heart. He has made me more aware of my love for others and He has helped me see my guilt. I feel fortunate to have, at last night’s penance service, been able to reconcile and receive the grace of His forgiveness. Now, when I give the gift of myself to Him on the anniversary of His birth, my heart will be clean.
How long has it been since you let Him stare into your heart and convict you? It’s not too late.
Merry Christmas and God Bless.
1Rest (The Song of the Innkeeper), Words and music by Jason Gray and Randall Goodgame, ©2012 Centricity Music Publishing & Nothing Is Wasted Music (ASCAP)/Mighty Molecule Music (ASCAP)
2The Innkeeper’s Wife, by A.J. Cronin, ©1958 Hearst Publishing Co., Inc.
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