This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our thunder and our war;
But our peace is as far as the angel sings
And our faith is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
We shall at last come home,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are:
In the place where God was homeless
All people are at home.
GK Chesterton (altered)
I apologise to lovers of this poem for my alterations – a few words here and there- which I can only justify by confessing that for me Chesterton is 50% wisdom and 50% nonsense, and he frequently published things that a decent editor would have made him revise. Still, even at that, he’s often wonderful.
I’ve spent some blogspace recently building up the elements of a theology of God’s House. Obviously Christmas can be interpreted as a major contribution to such a theology, focusing as it does in popular celebration on a house which is not a house but a stable. Scholars have suggested that the Greek word used by Luke in his birth narrative should be translated “living space” rather than “inn” but the important detail is that in either case, there was no room for a man and his pregnant wife. Luke means his readers to see that the holy child is born amongst animals because he and his parents have been sidelined by the world, as the powerless and needy usually are. The direction of travel of the holy child in Luke’s story is resolutely downward, from the Holy Spirit who comes upon Mary, to the empire ruled by Rome, to the society divided into haves and have-nots, housed and homeless, to the stable with animals. This is the journey that God must make to make sure that nobody is excluded from God’s house, so that no-one can think that God is above or beyond them.
The only people to welcome the child (according to Luke) are shepherds who live outside with their animals. So this is a very strange house indeed, almost not a house at all, an open dwelling from which nobody is excluded. Nor is it a place of help for the poor and powerless; it is the place where God is poor and powerless, and has to rely on poor but resolute parents to preserve his life. We are not told if Jesus was registered in the census as a baby, or whether the registering was done before his birth. In any case, he barely makes it on to the taxation rolls of the empire which will eventually kill him.
For Luke, this open house is the same as that made evident in Jesus’ ministry to the poor, the outcast, and the sinful; the same as demonstrated in his forgiving death and his risen presence in an inn and a house; the same as offered in the preaching and community life of the first church: an open house of God, where God’s way is revealed and followed, rather than the way of the world. God persuades people into this house through his child who has no wordly status, power or wealth as he quietly helps people to wake up to life.
The church models itself on this house of God, not when it reaches out from its place of comfort to offer help or justice, but rather when it learns from the downward mobility of God, how to divest itself of worldly power, and to become an acccessible house where needy people have the dignity of helping themselves and each other, whatever the need.
The church or the faithful believer both are and are not houses of God, or to be more precise, they are already to some extent, but not yet completely, houses of God; for the house of God is an eschatological reality, existing in its incomplete and persuasive form in time and history, but in its perfection only beyond the horizon of both. The believing person and community acknowledge this truth in their worship which declares that the earthly house belongs to the creator, and is moved by the creative spirit to share the life of Jesus the child of God, and through him the lives of their brothers and sisters, in the one household.
In the place where God was homeless / all people are at home.