Bishop of Guildford's Christmas Thought 2015
'There was no room at the inn'.
It's only a small detail in Luke's Gospel, but it's certainly captured the imagination of a thousand authors of school nativity plays, as they've created the role of grumpy innkeeper, then grumpy innkeeper's wife, grumpy innkeeper's family and even - in one memorable production I attended - grumpy innkeeper's dog. Well, everyone in Year 3 has to have a part, of course, and maybe the role of the grumpy innkeeper's dog is the best place to channel the energies of the school clown.
'No room at the inn', though, isn't really a clowning matter.
It raises questions for us about how much room we have to spare as a nation, in the context of the largest refugee crisis since the 2nd World War. True we can't take in everyone, but 'Are we simply going to walk by on the other side... of the Channel?'
It raises questions too about how much room we have to spare as a Church, where it's often hard to draw a dividing line between a faithful, committed membership (which every church needs) and an exclusive, like-minded club (which every church needs like a hole in the head). How easily that little phrase 'my church' can start to become possessive rather than merely descriptive, while the reality, of course, is that no church is 'my church' because every church is Christ's church.
It even raises questions about who should sit around our Christmas table: giving a little less thought, perhaps, to the details of the menu and the shopping, the cooking and the seating plan and the table decorations, and a little more thought to how far the table will stretch - to whom we might invite.
And at the heart of it all is that little word 'Hospitality', a word derived from the Latin 'hospes', which is variously translated as 'stranger, a foreigner, or a guest. There's no such thing as a hospitality industry in the Christian understanding of the term: Where offering hospitality is a commercial transaction, it's not offering hospitality. But the idea that we might reach out to strangers, foreigners, guests with the warmth and welcome of our Lord Himself is absolutely basic to the message of Christmas.
My children have a fund of anecdotes about the varied guests who have joined us for Christmas dinners over the years. There was the year when we invited a middle aged man with mild kleptomaniac tendencies to our Christmas lunch, who ended up stealing all the toilet paper, which made for an interesting Boxing Day in the Watson household! There was the year when we invited a rather crabby older lady who later wrote one of the most moving letters I have ever received, saying that it had been the very best day of her life: a transformative day too, as that lady ended up becoming a much treasured member of our church community. There was the guest who came for Christmas, and ended up staying with us for two years.
So did our children suffer along the way? Not at all. It helped them all to look beyond themselves at Christmas-time in a way that has grown them into genuinely caring, compassionate young adults.
And so to Christmas 2015, our first family Christmas in Guildford: and I'm delighted to hear of all the initiatives across the Diocese that are reaching out to those in need during this season: do check out our website and get involved, as you are able.
I'm delighted too to see examples of churches rejecting the old club mentality and genuinely reaching out in love and service to younger people, to poorer people, to those from different racial backgrounds, to those in some sense disadvantaged or disabled: do keep that going, not just at Christmastime, but 24/365.
And while we probably won't be able to host a refugee family this Christmas, we can metaphorically make room for them around our table by generously supporting the work of mission and relief agencies as they seek to help.
'There was no room in the inn', writes Luke of the infant Jesus and the holy family. And here are words from the adult Jesus later on in Luke's Gospel:
'When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours: if you do they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous'.
Have a great Christmas!