…there was no place for them in the inn
When it came time for Mary to deliver her child, the Greek text of Luke’s Gospel reads, “she wrapped him in cloth and laid him in crib, as there was no room in the guest room.” Luke does not exactly say there was no room in the inn. There is a different Greek word for inn (pandeion
), which Luke would later use in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The word he uses in the Infancy narrative (kataluma
) is the same word he uses to describe the room in which Jesus would share the Last Supper with his disciples: the guest room of a house.
Archaeological studies have shown that houses in Bethlehem and its vicinity often had caves at the back of the house where they kept their beasts of burden. The guest room was in the front of the house, the animal shelter in the back, and Joseph and Mary had come too late to get the guest room, so the relatives did the best they could by putting them in the back of the house. Perhaps seeing that Mary was close to labour, the family put the guest in clear distress in a quiet place, which was also unclean – with the animals. We cannot overlook the ritual uncleanness of childbearing in this story. Jesus was born in his relatives’ home, in the place where they kept the most precious of their animals. One can well imagine the smell. This is not a story of inhospitality but rather one about a family making do when more relatives than expected suddenly show up on the doorstep. Each of us can certainly relate to this phenomenon at some point in our lives!
Thomas Merton once gave a powerful Christmas homily in which he spoke about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Merton said:
“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 He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst ...It is in these that He hides Himself, for whom there is no room.”
The Nativity by Antoniazzo Romano
The drama of Jesus' birth reminds us that the elite and powerful, those who benefited most from keeping the status quo, were the least open to the in-breaking of the Kingdom, to new insights, to solutions to the injustices and the heartbreaks of this world. Who caught on to the whole story in the beginning? First, some shepherds from Beit Sahour. Simple folk can usually find the Lord by crossing a field like shepherds; they bring their poverty, humility, and simple openness.
During his very moving homily at Christmas Midnight Mass
in Saint Peter’s Basilica on December 25, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about making room for God in the world and in our hearts. The Holy Father said:
“In some way, mankind is awaiting God, waiting for Him to draw near. But when the moment comes, there is no room for Him. Man is so preoccupied with himself, he has such urgent need of all the space and all the time for his own things, that nothing remains for others – for his neighbour, for the poor, for God. And the richer men become, the more they fill up all the space by themselves. And the less room there is for others.
“…Do we have time for our neighbour who is in need of a word from us, from me, or in need of my affection? For the sufferer who is in need of help? For the fugitive or the refugee who is seeking asylum? Do we have time and space for God? Can He enter into our lives? Does He find room in us, or have we occupied all the available space in our thoughts, our actions, our lives for ourselves?”