Every year in our local Lompoc Community the Are You Ready? Ministries Pageant Company puts on a unique Christmas Pageant called "Journey to Bethlehem." In this "play" we follow Joseph and Mary on their dangerous, uncomfortable, humiliating, and difficult trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, as they are obliged by both Caesar's census and Divine prophecy to give birth to the Messiah in the City of David.
The audience is led up and down hills and through the countryside on a farm at nighttime, and at various points we encounter Joseph and Mary as they prepare to begin a day of continuing their four-day walk, as they are obliged to pay the ferryman to bring them across a river, as violent and dangerous Zealots are encountered, as the their tax is paid and their obligation to Caesar's census is fulfilled, no room found at the Inn, nor indeed anywhere else (though someone does offer to let them use their spare animal stables), the angels appear to the shepherds, and finally ending in a live Nativity Crèche.
This event provides to as many in our local community as show an interest a chance to focus on the true significance of Christmas, and share in what small way we can in the travails of their rigorous Journey to Bethlehem. I am the Catholic tour guide (the other tour guides are usually Protestant ministers or evangelists). One visitor to this Pageant this year commented to me that this was something like a Stations of the Cross, except that this would be more properly referred to as a "Stations of the Nativity."
Something seen in our pageant (and probably every other Christmas pageant and play and musical imaginable) is the harried Innkeeper. Perhaps you have seen this sort of scene yourself: Joseph, with an agonized, sighing and moaning Mary at his side ("The Messiah just CAN'T be born on the roadside!") knocks on the door of the Inn. Almost no sooner the Innkeeper sticks his or her head out to see who is at the door, other people in the Inn need them right away, RIGHT AWAY!, the people in room 2 are complaining again. No room, no closets, not even any floor space. Those people camped on the floor just inside the doorway had reservations.
I wonder sometimes if it really was that way. Childbirth is always known to be a very messy process, and an Israelite innkeeper would be understandably concerned about the costs of ritually cleansing whatever room is used for such an activity. Being so poor as to have to bring a turtledove as an offering at the Temple, Joseph and Mary obviously lacked the money to persuade the innkeeper to make an exception in their case. Was there room at the Inn? For someone else, perhaps. For a woman about to give birth? "No room for you."
In the era of the high Middle Ages, the Church in Her grandest glory in many ways had come to forget the humble simplicity of the circumstances of our Lord's birth. The Mass of the Nativity, Christ's Mass (hence, "Christmas"), was typically celebrated with all the pomp and circumstance of a Solemn Pontifical High Mass, full Gregorian choir at their special best, and all manner of decorations and festiveness. After all, the penitential period of Advent is over and now it is time for feasting.
It is at this time that Saint Francis of Assisi built the first Christmas Crèche, with simple bare wood for sides of a lean-to structure and a horse's feeding trough (manger), and mere horse-food (straw) as bedding for the infant King. Needless to say, the custom quickly took over and churches all around the world quickly adopted the custom, which is still in force to this day. Even many non-Catholic churches follow it. It recalled the long-forgotten humble circumstances of His birth, and that in itself is a major part of the attraction and unique beauty of Christmas.
So what about their humble circumstances? Where was the supposed "King" of the Jews (actually a mere Roman puppet governor) Herod? In the King's palace of course. Where were the High Priest and his assistant priests? In the grand and glorious newly expanded and reworked Temple. The rich and powerful no doubt also had their houses in the immediate neighborhood of the Temple and the King's palace. But the King of kings had nothing of His Own to rest His head upon as He endured the cold of that nearly open space scarcely fit for even animals to live.
Who had the seeming power and glory as the world saw it? "King" Herod of course. But who is the Son of David, the Messiah, Israel's real and eternal King, and the Incarnate Lord who saw Abraham's day? The Baby Jesus, in the cold, on the straw, with the financially poorest of parents. Christmastime comes in the darkest and coldest season of the year, weather-wise. The times were dark spiritually as well when Christ was born.
The ostensible king Herod, upon learning of the birth of the Messiah, had only one thought on his mind, and that was murder! He wanted to kill the newborn Messiah, and cared not how many others would have to be killed just to "be sure" that he "got" the one he wanted. Nobody minded. Rachel may have wept for her children, but no one else did. Materially, Israel was actually doing rather well at the time, with new aqueducts bringing water into the city, a newly renovated Temple, and even the newly built Hippodrome which served as an entertainment center for Judea, where by which the populace could be gradually corrupted into following decadent Roman ways with first chariot races and animal fights, but later on public executions and gladiatorial games (sort of like TV which has gone from "Timmy and Lassie" to "Desperate Housewives" in a few short decades).
It is a measure of just how dark the times are that the King of Glory was now the supreme fugitive. Are times so different today? Already there is no room for Tradition at the Inn of the Novus Ordo. How many traditional processions, ending at a Cathedral, have been told at the door that they could not enter therein for a truly Catholic Mass? How many have therefore had to have their Mass outside or some other hastily contrived location? Was the Cathedral itself really so busy? Of course not! It was not "There's no room," but "There's no room for YOU."
Only the tiniest handful of historic Catholic church buildings remain in truly Catholic hands today. There is of course St. Nicholas du Chardonnet in France and St. Vincent de Paul's in Kansas City held by the SSPX, Immaculate Conception in Ohio held by the SSPV, and a beautiful former Jesuit seminary held by the CMRI up at Mount Saint Michael's, and a couple dozen other such structures around the world, but by and large, nearly all traditional Masses take place in inexpensively built new churches, former Protestant churches, rented rooms, private homes, tiny chapels and grottos, or just plain outside in the weather.
When attending a traditional Catholic Mass at any of the more funky of these settings, recall the Nativity. How we wish we could have been there alongside the simple shepherds. But at the traditional Mass we are! The Religion, the Church, and the Faith of Christ is almost as much exiled today as He Himself was back then. Follow the star, ye wise and powerful in this world today! Bring hither your gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Infant Church, eternally new, eternally ancient of days, always the same, sometimes in glory but now in exile as He was on that cold Christmas morning. They may have nearly all the grand cathedrals and public
status, but here in the humble stable of tradition we have
Emmanuel: God is with us! Be ye Merry at our Lord Jesus