The Church Ad Project is a company that produces provocative posters designed to get folks to take a second look at faith. One declares that “God isn’t colorblind. God loves us because of our differences, not in spite of them.” Another features a picture of Jesus with the caption, “He died to take away your sins, not your mind.” I am particularly fond of a third that is especially relevant this time of year. It shows a crowd gathered around a manger above the words, “In a religion born in a barn, an open door goes without saying.”
One of the reasons this ad caught my fancy has to do with childhood memories of when a friend would walk by my house and yell to me to come out and play. I would run down the steps and out the back door, rarely stopping to close the door. Sometimes when my father observed this behavior he would call after me, “Were you born in a barn?” which infers that only country bumpkins would leave a door open. I doubt this phrase has been wildly popular in Juneau given the lack of barns in the area, but an unscientific poll of acquaintances who grew up down South reveals that mine was not the only parent who was partial to this saying. My dad’s retort has stuck in my mind over the years, although it was rather unsuccessful at getting me to change my behavior.
“Were you born in a barn?” Wherever the phrase came from, and research into its origin is inconclusive, it has come to be used as a jab at the uncouth whether delivered light-heartedly or not. But the Church Ad Project flips the phrase’s meaning and uses it to declare the radical welcome of the Christmas message. No longer is being born in a barn the cause for derision. It is, rather, a glorious declaration of inclusivity. Consider it — Christianity was born in a barn! Not a mansion. Not a penthouse. Not an ornate sanctuary, but a barn with an open door. This was the surprising good news of great joy the angels declared to a bunch of unkempt shepherds that eked out a living on the margins of Palestinian society. A religion was born in a barn and they were welcome to come through its open door: The door is open for one and for all.
The message wasn’t just for 2,000 years ago. A word of welcome is needed still. Canadian folksinger Bruce Cockburn updates it in his song, “Birth of a Tiny Babe.”
“There are others who know about this miracle birth. The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth. For it isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes, but to shepherds, and street people and hookers and bums…It’s a Christmas gift you don’t have to buy. There’s a future shining in a baby’s eyes.”
Sadly, not everyone receives the news. There are those for whom the holidays do not contain a word of welcome. Some may be dealing with the death of a loved one and Christmas intensifies their loss. Some struggle with addiction compounded by winter’s long nights and holiday gatherings filled not with good cheer but excessive drinking. Still others succumb to the consumer culture message that a happy Christmas necessitates a buying frenzy and they despair that they have no money to spend. On the religious front, there are those who experience judgment rather than welcome. They feel like the church has strayed from its open door beginnings.
In the religion born in a barn, an open door goes without saying. Whether or however you celebrate Christmas, my prayer for you is that amid the myriad challenges that accompany the season, you find an open door of welcome and acceptance, be it at church, in a friend’s home, at a community gathering, or elsewhere. That would be good news of great joy for all the people.
• Phil Campbell is the pastor of Northern Light United Church.