Every year, for as long as I can remember, my mum has bought me an Advent calendar. As a child, there was a festive picture behind each door. Thankfully, these days, the doors open to reveal a chocolate. And so, like me, people across the world are opening the last door to mark the arrival of Christmas Day and the celebration of the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Doors and doorways are part of the nativity story. On this holy night, let’s take a moment to consider, first, a closed nativity door; and then, wonderfully, an open nativity door: open to me and open to you, open, in fact, to the whole of creation.
It was the census imposed by Caesar Augustus that forced St Joseph to return to his home town with his betrothed, Mary, Our Blessed Lady. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been demanding, not least for Mary who was pregnant with the Lord Jesus. They ‘travelled up’ from Galilee to Judea taking in the climb of the mountainous terrain. It was a distance of about eighty miles, over difficult ground. Walking at a good pace, the route would have taken the best part of a week, perhaps quicker with the aid of a donkey.
Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem tired and weary. St Luke tells us that, because so many people had returned for the census, there was no ‘guest room’ available, often translated as there being ‘no room at the inn.’ Perhaps Mary and Joseph were looking to rent lodgings. Maybe they were hoping to stay with Joseph’s family. Whatever they intended, the door was closed and their hearts must have sunk.
At this critical moment, there was no space for them, no place for them, no room for them. This is the closed door of frustration and disappointment, a symbol of the many doors of rejection, isolation, and abandonment, experienced especially by the needy, the poor, and the downtrodden. How many people today face closed doors, where friendship and compassion are held back, leaving them lonely, even destitute? How many people today have doors closed on their need for food and shelter, for safety and refuge? Even those fortunate to have a home, a job, a family, and friends, can still know the pain caused when loss, illness, fear, and sin, close the door on our wellbeing and inner peace. Joseph and Mary are united intimately to each of us whenever the door closes on our hopes and dreams. They beckon us to stand secure in faith, as they did. And, even with a door closed in our face, to trust that God is with us, as God was with them in the unborn Lord Jesus.
One door closed for Joseph and Mary; but another door opened. This is what happens when we live by providence, when we believe, no matter what, that God’s love always triumphs. The medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, reminds us how to live this faithfully: in Christ ‘all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’
An unexpected doorway opened for the Holy Family, a doorway to a stable. This was far from majestic, the surroundings the very opposite of a palace. But, here, a king entered to be born. Born that we no more may die; born to raise us from the earth; born to give us second birth.
What we often imagine and construct as a stable was probably more an adapted cave, used to house animals, with a makeshift entrance. Through its humble door, carried within Mary, the prince of peace makes his arrival. A lowly barn becomes the gateway to eternal life as the new-born Christ is laid in the manger. This simple doorway marks the threshold of divine invitation across which shepherds will come to kneel in wonder, and wise men, too, to bow down in adoration.
This door reveals the Saviour who takes away the sins of the world, who offers Himthe way to forgiveness and to heaven. This is the doorway to the fullness of life. It swings open wide when we dare to keep believing, despite doubt and temptation. It opens wide when vengeance gives way to mercy, when the innate dignity of every person is honoured and cherished, when love refuses to be cowered by anger, regret, or hatred, and when truth and justice are upheld. This open stable door reveals God to the world: God made flesh; God with us; God in Christ calling us to rejoice in our true identity as beloved sons and daughters of one Heavenly Father. When we enter through the stable door to Christ, we meet the doorway to eternal life who is Christ Himself.
There is, of course, another door, a personal door where each one of us is the doorkeeper. This door can only be opened from the inside. We can choose freely to grant access, or to keep it firmly shut. Christ stands, lovingly and patiently, knocking at this door, the door of my heart and your heart. And ‘where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.’
After a year unlike any most of us have known, Christmas invites us to open the door of our hearts to Christ. In a new way, or perhaps for the first time, Christmas means believing that love is always the best way; that God is really with us and we are never alone; that we can be forgiven and find healing and wholeness. This Christmas can we open the door of our heart to the light and hope the Lord Jesus brings? In Pope Francis’ words: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side, every day, to enlighten, strengthen, and free you.’
Social distancing and wearing masks have become part of our lives as we fight the Covid 19 pandemic. But Christmas celebrates closeness, the timeless truth of God’s love in person, through the birth of His Son. God’s love bridges the distance and separation created by sin. God’s love reaches out ceaselessly, past the interior masks we all wear. God’s love draws hearts together, into union. In Christ, God invites us to open the door of our heart, to receive His love so that we can share His love; to accept His love so that we can be His love.
May the Christmas gift of love, which flows from Christ through the open stable door at Bethlehem, warm and fill your heart; and may God bless you, and those you love, this festive season and throughout the coming New Year. Amen