In her beautiful Book A Christmas Longing, Joni Eareckson Tada talks about a longing each of us senses this time of year – especially when we listen to the child inside of us. “It’s a desire to be home, to belong, to find fulfillment, complete and eternal. Christmas is an invitation to a celebration yet to happen….Every Christmas is still a ‘turning of the page’ until Jesus returns. ” She says holiday carols, gifts, smiles, and angels point to a future when yes, there will be eternal peace on earth.
But I can’t get my mind off the innkeeper. I wonder if he ever recognized who he turned away that night. Surely the angels singing and shepherds arriving stirred the neighborhood to watch and wonder. Surely the star that hovered over the manger kept the innkeeper just a little awake and wondering if maybe he should have responded differently.
Tada shares a short story printed in Guideposts a long time ago about Wally Purling and the Christmas pageant. It goes like this:
“Wally was nine and in second grade – although he should have been in fourth. Most folks in town knew he had trouble keeping up. He was big and clumsy, slow in movement and mind. Still, Wally was well liked by the other children in his class, all of whom were smaller than he. He was always helpful, the natural protector of the underdog.
Wally fancied the idea of being a shepherd with a flute in the Christmas pageant that year. But the director of the play, Miss Lumbard, assigned him to a “more important” role. After all, she reasoned, the innkeeper didn’t have too many lines.
So it happened that the usual large audience gathered for the town’s yearly extravaganza of crowns and halos, shepherds’ crooks and beards, and a whole stage full of squeaking voices. But no one on stage or off was more caught up in the magic of the night than Wally Purling.
The time came when Joseph, appeared, slowly, tenderly guiding Mary to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked hard on the wooden door of the painted backdrop.
“What do you want?” Wally said, swinging the door open.
“We seek lodging.”
“Seek in elsewhere.” Wally looked straight ahead and spoke vigorously. “The inn is full.”
“Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary.”
Wally looked stern. “There is no room in this inn for you.”
Joseph put his arm around Mary. “Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife and she is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her.”
For the first time, Wally the innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance and looked down at Mary. There was a long pause – long enough to make the audience a bit tense with embarrassment. A prompter whispered from the wings, “Your line is ‘No! Be gone!'”
Wally repeated automatically, “Be gone!”
Joseph sadly placed his arm around Mary, and the two of them started moving away. Wally stood there in the doorway, watching . Suddenly his eyes filled with tears. And suddenly this Christmas pageant became different from all others.
“Wait!” Wally the innkeeper suddenly blurted out. “Don’t go Joseph.” His face broke into a wide smile. “You can have my room.”
Many people in town thought the program had been ruined. A few, however – the thoughtful ones – considered it the most meaningful pageant of all.