2015’s Christmas Monologue: What does peace mean? The innkeeper’s story

Monologue: What does Peace mean?

I remember hearing the announcement: Caesar Augustus, King of the world, declares that there is peace. The pax Romana – the peace of Rome. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t want to live in peace? Well, it doesn’t always feel like peace means the same to the Romans as it does to the rest of us. Do you know what the Roman peace means? It means the world is at peace because the Romans have killed anyone who could start a war. ‘They make a desert, and call it peace’ – that’s what it means. And do you know what the Romans do, when they’ve brought you this glorious peace, by killing your kings and breaking your armies, and grinding your cities into the ground? They tax you. They make you pay for the soldiers that have made you bleed. So that’s how we know that Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Julius, has brought us peace on Earth – he declares that the whole world is to be taxed.

At first, I thought it was going to be great for business, the census. Caesar Augustus orders everyone to go to their hometown to register. Well, seeing as we were in Bethlehem, I thought we’d be set up, you know? I mean, sure, it’s not that big a place if you compare it to Jerusalem, up the road, but it’s Bethlehem, city of David, you know? No ordinary town. Most of the time, trade for us is slow but steady – merchants or pilgrims travelling into Jerusalem from the hill country or back out again. It picks up at festival time, you know? But for the census, you see, everyone has to register in their home town. And suddenly – aha! – everyone discovers that their mother’s mother’s mother was of the line of David. Never mind that by now their family’s been living in Emmaus for five generations and married local boys and girls – no, suddenly they’re of the line of David for tax purposes. You’d be surprised how many people want to make that sort of claim. It’s good for their business, or their political prospects, or their chances of being guru to some crazy cult or whatever. You get the picture. So, when the census gets announced, they all know if they’re going to try and cash in on this claim of theirs then they need to be seen to take it seriously. I mean, a lot of them probably aren’t that keen on paying taxes to Caesar, but if you want people to think of you as of the line of David then you need to make a big thing of it and never mind who called the census. ‘Curse these Romans and their taxes, forcing the sons of the line of David to leave home and business and travel all this way just to have their name recorded by some scribe, but we will not dishonour our ancestors by failing to be there’ Hmmm? I expect you’ve heard them too, telling every soul they pass on the road where they’re going and why.

So, I was thinking business is looking up – all these people coming to a hometown that strangely enough they have no home in. I thought, time to put my rates up for census month, this’ll set me up for life! But it didn’t work out that way. See the problem was, as fast as people were coming to Bethlehem, people were leaving it too. And most of them seemed to be on my staff. Abra, my cook, turns out her family was from Jericho. Miciah and Hila were from Jerusalem. Even my suppliers were leaving – wine merchants, oil sellers, tailors. And you couldn’t say to a guest ‘I’m sorry, but we have no wine left since the merchants left to be registered elsewhere, so I hope you’ve brought your own – oh and that’ll be 20 denarii’.

I had to beg, borrow, and steal to stockpile enough to last. Take on new staff, pay them double and find time to train them to be half as good as the ones who’d left. When I started to add it all up – well, let’s just say I just about broke even by hiking my prices to ones even I winced at. They paid of course – after all, what other choice did they have? But it was hell. I was cursing the census by the end of it. We were providing service so bad our reputation would be ruined in every town the guests came from, and working our fingers to the bone to do it. We barely had time to think, let alone eat or sleep.

That was when the young couple arrived, all the way from Galilee. Late. She was heavily pregnant – looked like she was about to pop. I expect it had slowed them down more than they thought. They’d already tried everywhere else in town. I could tell just from looking at them that they couldn’t afford what we were charging, even if we’d had the room, which we didn’t. No-one travels like that if they can afford not to. This wasn’t one of those glory-seekers. He must actually be from the line of David. I told them we had nowhere, but the poor girl was practically in labour standing there. So I showed them to the stable. I couldn’t just leave them in the street. Look, I know I’m a businessman, but I have a heart, you know? I’d hardly let them in when I had to rush back to sort out bedding for the merchant from Caesarea. It wasn’t until hours later I could spare time to go down with some blankets and bread – I know, if you thought the service for the other guests was bad… but it was the best I could do. And more than they could afford. By then they’d had the baby. A boy. My wife wanted to know.

It was then that the shepherds arrived. That was a surprise, I must admit. Half a dozen shepherds, stinking of stale sweat, sheep, and wood fires, all suddenly descending on us, hammering on the door, babbling about visions of angels. Now I’m not an irreligious man – I go to the synagogue, make the journey to Jerusalem for Passover. But if a bunch of shepherds appear at your door in the middle of the night saying they’ve seen angels, what would you think? And yes, they clearly had had a few, but they didn’t seem to be actually drunk.

Well I tried to keep them quiet – it was the middle of the night and they’re a rowdy bunch – but they were demanding to see the baby. The angels had told them about it, gave them exact instructions to find him. So exact that they were hollering outside my inn asking for the baby in the manger. Apart from the parents, me and the missus were the only ones in Bethlehem who’d know what they were talking about. That made me think. So as I led them round to the stable, I asked what else the angels had said. What they told me – well, it wasn’t what I’d expected. So I kind of stood there at the door while they went in, and looked at the couple and their baby. They looked so ordinary. Yes, I’d thought the man must be genuinely of the line of David, but they weren’t people I’d have singled out as the parents of the Messiah. But that’s what the angel had said. That child, wrapped in some cloths that had seen better days, put in the straw of a manger for lack of anywhere softer, was going to be king of the world, son of God. Absent mindedly, I pulled a denarius out and looked at the face of the man who claimed those titles today. What was it the angels had said? Peace on earth, goodwill to all. When Augustus proclaimed peace it meant blood and taxes. I looked at the baby in the manger: his parents with barely a pair of denarii between them, the shepherds, who were as rough and rowdy as you’d find, silent and awe-struck, even the donkeys and horses looking curiously out. This was a different sort of peace. A peace where the people you’d usually try to keep out were there, welcomed in.

I walked away quietly, and I wondered, (as I tried to reassure the guests that the rowdy shepherds weren’t trying to break in and they could go back to sleep) I wondered: what sort of king is this? What sort of kingdom will he bring? And is it one where I could stand in peace, with the shepherds?