Who helped Mary and Joseph when they reached Bethlehem in their hour of need?
Our “Christmas Pageant” tradition gains lots of mileage from the crowded public inn and the dour innkeeper who sent them to the dirty barn. But does that hold water with a careful exegesis of the biblical text?
The Greek word “kataluma” was translated as “inn” by the King James scholars centuries ago. But modern scholarship based on many first century documents shows the more common usage was to describe the “guest room,” in the house. The common family house in ancient Palestine had a family area and a guest room on the upper level, with a stable below. If Luke wanted to describe a public inn, he would have used the word ‘pandokheion,’ as in Lk 10:36. The customs of the ancient world placed a top priority on hospitality to family. A long-lost relative would have been accommodated by the family no matter what the effort, at the risk of dishonoring the family name.
This provides a better understanding of the story. In all probability Joseph and Mary were lodged by relatives in an over-crowded house, so crowded the “kataluma,” the guest room, was already occupied, and they had to use the lower floor for lodging. Mary did give birth in the stable and use the manger (cut in the stone wall) as the bed for Jesus but they were not alone! The wondrous birth was surrounded by the extended family and villagers. We should imagine the holy family in the context of relationships, support, and heritage. We should visualize a Jewish community full of life, laughter and amazement at the story Mary tells! We may think of Jesus leaving the intimacy of the Godhead but finding the closest thing to that on earth: the relationships of a human family.
American culture has come to idealize family holiday connections, while at the same time moving toward isolation, anonymity and separation. We cry at the final line of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.” Perhaps we know that our social life is becoming more fragmented each season. May and Joseph had experienced fear, anxiety, and rejection. But it’s possible that the night Jesus was born all that disappeared in the joy of birth among their kin. It seems best for us to re-imagine the birth of Jesus as a family affair and re-affirm the importance of family in our spiritual journey.