No one wants to be the innkeeper in a Christmas pageant. You know the one, the door-slamming landlord who turned away Joseph and Mary before they became the Holy Family. Any other role is better that that one. Even wearing the scratchy sheep costume is better or being the rope pull on the flying angel—anything but the mean innkeeper of Bethlehem.
This failure to give a bed to a tired pregnant teenager has had far-reaching consequences. Imagine how different Christmas would be if the couple had not been left out in the cold. In one small action of thoughtfulness, we would have been spared all those plastic light-up outdoor Nativity scenes. If only we could do it all over again.
The Latin American tradition las posadas gives participants a chance to be better than the original host. For several nights before Christmas, groups accompanying children dressed as Joseph and a pregnant Mary travel from door to door looking for lodging. The procession can feature lanterns, singing, a donkey and a whole lot of adorable kids dressed in biblical costumes. On these nine nights, the holy couple is welcomed inside, and festive foods like tamales and atole are served. The community gathers and ritually rewrites the Scriptures, this time welcoming the strangers in from the cold.
No one wants to be the innkeeper in a Christmas pageant.
If Jesus and Mary had been regular guests at the inn, their room would have been reserved, their names would have been known and the story would be different. But it was their first time at this inn, and they didn’t know you had to show up early. They didn’t know a lot of things. How could they? That is what being a stranger means: Not being known is part of it, but not knowing is the rest.
But even if posadas are not part of your tradition, this Christmas we can all do better than the innkeeper who shut the door. Many of us will be gathering with family and friends for Christmas Mass. And, as usual, we will be a mixed group made up of those who get to Mass regularly and those who do not. Our experience of Christmas Mass is going to be different depending on our place in the mix. For the regular Mass-goers, it will seem homey and routine, and a nod of recognition is going to be enough.
But the Catholics who go to church only on Christmas and Easter will carry with them the reasons they usually do not make it to Mass. So they are going to need more than a nod. Their experience will hinge on feeling welcomed or not. Studies bear this out. People return to churches because they are welcomed, not because the church got everything else right. Both regular Mass-goers and Christmas Catholics can make this work better. We, as a group, can rewrite the moment at the inn.
Imagine how different Christmas would be if Mary and Joseph had not been left out in the cold.
So if you are a Christmas Catholic, plan to arrive with an open mind. And do it for your own sake. Not for your mother or your boyfriend but for you. Yes, the church is a mess, but sitting in judgment will only make your Christmas grimmer and rob you of joy. I know how easy it is to see what is wrong with the church; there is always plenty to choose from. But the truth is, the ministers, the building, the music, the priest and the preaching are not specifically designed to disappoint you. And if you are reeling from the abuse crisis and the hundred other things the Catholic Church is doing wrong, I get you. But instead of being judge and jury for the entire Catholic Church, go ahead and choose to see how God wants to love you through this particular parish on this specific night.
And for those who call the particular parish home, Christmas is the chance to welcome the stranger; to be the good innkeeper and not the bad one. And who knows, the welcome you extend to the infrequent Mass-goer might be what brings that person into community. And next year you both will be welcoming a new stranger together.
But this hospitality does not just happen. If a parish wants to welcome the stranger, they have to imagine what it is like to be a stranger. And to do that, they have to start where the stranger starts: online.
Yes, the church is a mess, but sitting in judgment will only make your Christmas grimmer and rob you of joy.
Unlike Mary and Joseph, the contemporary stranger is going to check out the local parish online. And the Christmas Mass times have to be prominently featured on the front page of the website. Boom, right there. And if you really want to get the bonus points for hospitality, you could do a front page link to a “What to expect” page for newcomers. People want to know how long Mass is going to be, as well as the style of music. Easy to do, with big impact not only on Christmas but all year long. If you do not already have a page like this at your parish, see if you can make it happen.
At the doors of the church, a parish can have well trained, friendly people greeting everyone, letting them know where the bathrooms are and handing out thoughtfully composed guides to worship. These guides can include music and lyrics that will help everyone sing and will avoid intrusive announcements from the choir director. Including the text of prayers that strangers might not have memorized is another act of hospitality. That means including the Creed and any other spoken prayers. Christmas Catholics will appreciate being looked after.
When deciding what to include in the Christmas worship guide, it is worth trying to imagine the reasons this stranger has not been to Mass in quite some time. If the parish has a social justice group, list it; if there is an L.G.B.T. Catholics group in your parish, mention it. Financial transparency might make an appropriate appearance. And yes, if there is a contact for reporting clerical abuse, list it. Many parishes are deeply involved in vital human issues, and this is the time to mention them. People, especially new ones, read these worship guides and make choices in light of what they read. Finally, if your parish has a program to welcome Catholics back into the faith, list it. With an eye to the stranger’s next step, parish contact info and regular Mass schedule should also be included and not relegated to a separate bulletin.
But not everything has to be crammed into the aid to worship. An announcement from the pulpit before Mass can go a long way toward making people feel welcome. At that point let people know the parish custom around reception of the Eucharist in the most carefully worded way possible. Be aware that people are sensitive to the slamming of a door throughout the liturgy, not just at the physical front doors of the church. This can happen when the pastor makes a sideways remark about the crowd of unfamiliar faces or blithely remarks he has not seen many of them since last Christmas. These wry comments about Christmas-and-Easter Catholics can go so wrong and people feel called out, criticized and confirmed in their reasons for avoiding the church in the first place.
Finally, if you are at your local parish, just as you were on the Sunday before Christmas, and if you are sitting in your usual spot, keep an eye out for a stranger looking for a seat. Be the family who makes room for strangers. Be the good innkeeper, the one who chose the stranger, the one who did what she could to help bring the Savior of our world into the world.