An all-time favorite story is the birth of Jesus as told by the evangelist Luke, a story inviting listeners on a journey with shepherds to Bethlehem to greet the newborn king on that first Christmas. While at the manger, I remember a question once asked of me by a young girl: “Why?” she inquired, “didn’t anyone help Mary find a place where she could have her baby?” The little girl was reflecting the sentiment of a favorite Christmas carol, “Away in the manger, no crib for a bed,” imagining an impoverished newborn Jesus lying in a borrowed feed trough.
I didn’t have an answer to her question, but treasured the tenderness revealed in her inquiring voice.
The answer to her question is complicated and many a tear has fallen imagining heartless innkeepers turning away a frantic Joseph seeking a bed for his pregnant wife. Eventually, Luke tells us, Joseph finds a place where Jesus is born and where Mary “wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)
How callous, one reasons, until we take a closer look.
The Greek word for inn, kataluma, would be more accurately translated “guest room.” The inn referred to in the parable of the Good Samaritan is pandokein, referring to a commercial inn. Bethlehem was too small a town to support a pandokein or commercial inn. Besides, first century inns and innkeepers did not enjoy a good reputation, according to Mishnaic references.
First century homes in Bethlehem, according to archeological evidence, were built with a guest room, a kataluma located in the front of the house. No room in the inn or guest room for Mary and Joseph likely meant visitors arrived before them and received the guest room, so Mary and Joseph were given a room at the back of the house where the animals were safely kept at night.
Archeologists have found no evidence of heating systems in Bethlehem where winter and spring evenings could be quite chilly, so the animals warmed the back room with their body heat.
“No place for them in the inn” is a story not about a first century neon “no vacancy” sign, it is the story of a family making necessary arrangements when unexpected relatives arrive. The story of the birth of Jesus is the story of extraordinary welcome.
As we fix our gaze on the nativity scene greeting us at the front door to our church, or on a neighbor’s lawn listen to its message of welcome and hear an invitation to imitate first century hospitality and generosity whenever cousins come knocking unexpectedly at the door.
We’ve many cousins knocking. As children of Abraham, we remember what God said to “Father Abraham,” “He brought him (Abraham) outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be’”(Genesis 15:5). The ever-popular DNA family ancestry test results surprise us as we discover long-lost relatives.
Embracing an all-time favorite story, Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus provides us with a model of behavior we are to imitate. We are to make room for the relatives knocking at our door. Some of our long-lost relatives have traveled great distances, and at great peril, as did Joseph and Mary. As the story of old goes, on opening the door and making room in our hearts, our guest rooms, homes, cities and nation for these unexpected guests, Christ will be born to us.