A collection of readings for Advent and Christmas, Watch for the Light, brought me this morning an extract from Thomas Merton's meditation "The Time of No Room" from his collection of essays, Raids on the Unspeakable.
Merton opens up another dimension of the politics of Christmas with a reminder of the critical approach of the Old Testament tradition to the practice of the census.
Why then was the inn crowded? Because of the census, the eschatological massing of the "whole world" in centers of registration, to be numbered, to be identified with the structure of imperial power. The purpose of the census: to discover those who were to be taxed. To find out those who were eligible for service in the armies of the empire.
The Bible had not been friendly to a census in the days when God was ruler of Israel (2 Samuel 24). the numbering of the people of god by an alien emperor and their full consent to it was itself an eschatological sign, preparing those who could understand it to meet judgment with repentance.
Merton provides a powerful reflection on the detail that there was no room for the baby in the inn.
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it - because he is out of place in it and yet must be in it - his place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.